When you think of a trip to Carlow, you might not immediately imagine visiting happy hens, lusty snails, haunted castles or even a huge underground temple devoted to the fertility goddess Isis and the Divine Feminine.
As though the fertility goddess herself has blessed the county for its centuries of worship, Carlow’s lush and fertile land is now yielding a bounty of food and beverage producers.
This is being celebrated by the tourism offering that tastes a little different to anywhere you’ve ever been.
They say the hens in Carlow are the happiest in Ireland.
The team at Butler’s Organic Eggs swear it’s the freedom and Carlow’s magical soil that makes them such satisfied chooks.
And it is perfect soil that also entices half a million snails to lay their eggs at Eva Milka and Eoin Jenkinson’s Gaelic Escargot in Garryhill.
The snails at Ireland’s first snail farm are being bred for the Dubai and Singapore markets, while also serving the tastes of Irish restaurant-goers.
You might assume snail farming is slow business, but Eva and Eoin are currently harvesting 500,000 snails off a half-acre, while supporting the 13 new Irish snail farms which they have been mentoring.
Gaelic Escargot also created a range of products around the delicacy – known to have aphrodisiac benefits – and these can be found at the farm shop, which is part of the new Taste In Carlow Discovery Trail.
The artisan producers have teamed up with a host of hotels, restaurants, heritage “big houses” and castle owners on the tourist trail to provide an offering of 26 hidden foodie gems and quirky experiences.
The seat of Divine Feminine
One such experience is in the dungeons of 17th-century Huntington Castle in Clonegal, where the Temple of the Goddess of Isis remains as the seat of the global Devine Feminine Fellowship.
Occupied now by castle-owners Alexander Durdin-Robertson and his wife Clare, the couple – along with their three young sons – operate castle and garden tours, B&B accommodation, and a tearoom which sources 95% of its produce locally. They also farm sheep and grow Christmas trees.
“It’s an incredible environment to work and raise kids in as these castles and big houses – if they are to survive – must be lived in,” says Alex.
Alex was raised at Huntington, where his late great-aunt Olivia converted the dungeons into the Temple of the Goddess in 1976, with her brother Lawrence and his wife Bobby.
Members of the public can visit the incredible castle which has been visited by the likes of Phil Lynott, Stanley Kubrick, Mick Jagger, Calista Flockhart and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Ghosts in the castle
The castle has had other notable visitors, such as the ghosts of Cromwellian soldiers and a few 13th-century Franciscan monks.
If the spooks at Huntington don’t frighten you away, a visit to the Blackstairs Eco Trail will certainly test your metal.
There, former Green Party TD Mary White is teaching people how to forage for wild food in bountiful Borris, helping them to connect with nature, food and the skill of ancient survival.
“Irish people were agricultural people but now, we are more urbanised and have disconnected with the seasons and with nature. Foraging is what our ancestors did to survive – we need to get back to our roots,” she says.
And helping us return to our food roots is what Helen Demetriou and her two siblings at Thrive Café and Farm are trying to do with their “farm to fork, to body” approach.
Helen manages the café, her sister Lorraine runs nutritional consultations and yoga retreats at the homestead Grove House and their brother Niall manages the production of organic foods on the farm.
Helen says trails such as the Taste In Carlow Discovery Trail was vital for farmers to showcase what they do.
More farmer produce can be found at the Coolanowle Foodhall or Carlow Farmers Market, where you will see the nettle milk varieties from Carlow Farmhouse Cheese and the colours and creativity of Malone Fruit Farm.
Maria Couchman, Business Advisor with Carlow County Council’s Local Enterprise Office, which kicked-started the discovery trail, says it was inspired by Carlow innovation.
“The Sunny South-East has offered the ideal climate for produce for generations and our food producers have a long history of hard work, innovation and a strong connection to the land,” she says.