The opening day of Clifden Arts Festival was sunny, the sky blue, a gentle offshore wind, mild SW swells. Too good a day to pass up! We sailed to Chapel Island in the Slyne Head archipelago.

The name comes from its chapel ruin. Built a thousand years ago, the chapel belongs to that extraordinary time of ascetic early Christianity, of the saints Brendan and Columba, and the remote monastic communities dotting the western coasts of Ireland and Scotland, like Skellig Michael, High Island, and Iona.

Within the chapel were juicy clusters of sheep sorrel, Rumex spp. These thrive in moisture and shade. They are sour; add to salads.

Orache, Atriplex spp, dotted the stone beaches. Some were in autumn colour, an intense purple-red. Orache thrives a few feet above the high tide, on rotting banks of seaweed thrown up by the spring tides. It likes bights and inlets which protect from storms. All parts of orache are good – take the tender parts – at this time of year the leaves and the young seed pods. Steam and serve with butter and a squish of garlic as a side dish, or fold into an omelette or a pasta dish.

Near the orache grew sea beet, Beta maritima. It thrives in the same ecosystem as orache. Sea beet grows all year round. Pick the leaves and stems. Recipes are as for orache. 

Nearby grew fine clumps of sea rocket, Cakile spp. A crucifer, it can be quite hot. All parts are good to eat, subject to limitations of tenderness and ‘hotness’. At this time of the year, pick the leaves, flowers and seed pods. Add to a salad, or steam and serve with couscous, tomato and feta in a Moroccan style dish.

On the rocks grew samphire, Crithmum maritimum. In the same family as fennel, its taste is similar. It is too intense a vegetable to be eaten in bulk. Use lightly, as in a chopped sprinkling on salads, or a few sprigs with broiling fish. It makes a good pickle – stuff a jar full, add spices and lemon chunks, and fill up with vinegar.

On the way home from Chapel Island we took mackerel in the setting sun, then watched the tawny glow of the cloudless western skies deepen into purple. 

Nick Kats