A Taste of West Cork 2017

Young Ambassadors for Gloun Cross Dairy

We have this incredible food festival down here – A Taste of West Cork. I wrote about it in 2014 in this post and in this one. This year it was bigger and better than ever, with an astounding variety of events to choose from. We signed up for something every day and we are now in recovery.

We started off with a Sunday brunch in Glansallagh Gardens, cooked by Chef Bob, in the tractor loft of our old friend Richard, who supplies fresh and delicious vegetables to many local restaurants. Five courses, long harvest tables, strangers from all over chatting amiably, swapping stories and laughter, and then weaving home past the guard geese to snooze away the rest of Sunday.

We love Durrus Cheese and jumped at the chance to attend a demonstration of how it’s made and a tasting. Everything is local, everything is done by hand, the taste comes from years of making and a passion for quality. It felt like a privilege to glimpse behind the scenes.

Sarah, second-generation cheese maker, explains the different processes that produce the Durrus cheeses

The Chestnut Tree was a beloved Ballydehob pub, but it’s been closed for years. Recently, however, it was revived as an Airbnb and during the Festival was re-purposed once again as a restaurant. It worked wonderfully well as a convivial space.

French chef, Antony Cointre, was a popular choice at the Chestnut Tree

We signed up for a Ramen Bowl menu and were not disappointed. Chef Brian from Belfast makes everything – everything – from scratch and showed us how he makes the noodles. To taste his broth is to truly understand the concept of umami.

Our dining partners were Jack and Julia Zagar. Julia is the genius behind the dynamic e-presence of Discover Schull – website, Facebook Page and Instagram account. Jack generously lends his own images to local initiatives

From the Casual, we graduated to the Gracious: dinner at Drishane House was sumptuous. Drishane is the ancestral home of Edith Somerville, now the residence of Tom and Jane Somerville. Jane is a wonderful cook and Tom a genial host, and our fellow guests were a lovely mix of local and from-away. We dined by candlelight surrounded by portraits of Somervilles, wine and conversation flowed, delicious courses kept appearing (all locally sourced as is the ethic of this Festival), and the port and cheese arrived just as we felt that truly an evening could hold no more enjoyment.

Drishane House in the spring, and a portrait of Edith Somerville in her role of Master of the Fox Hounds

By no means is this Festival only about dinners and chefs. We were attracted into Levis’s pub in the early afternoon by the sound of music and found a lively session in full swing – the end of a walking tour of Ballydehob that promised soup (made from vegetables from that morning’s tiny local market) and music as a restorative after the exertions of the walk. Soup was pressed upon us and we didn’t object.

Bob, Liam and Joe entertain the walkers, while Robert has fun with Johanna

Perhaps the most fun we had was also at Levis’s – it was called Sing for your Supper and the idea was to eat and sing, and whoever was judged to be the best singer would win their supper. It was an absolute hoot, with lots of good sports belting out old favourites (I personally led a version of Satisfaction that would curdle milk) and several excellent singers enthralling us all. The food was superb, prepared by an acknowledged top Irish chef, and local man, Rob Krawczyk

Thanks to Colm Rooney of the wonderful local web design agency Cruthu Creative for the photos of Sing for Your Supper. Ah sure, you can’t belt out the numbers and be snapping at the same time, now can you?

We bonded as a table – there were six of us, and we were thrilled to discover the identity of the youngest member. It was Eoin Warner, and if that name means nothing to you, it will one day. Eoin narrated the Irish version of Wild Ireland, Eire Fhiáin, shown to rapturous acclaim on the Irish TV channel. The photography was extraordinary and opened many of our eyes to the wildlife we have here. Forget David Attenborough and the Amazon Jungles – to see a humpback whale bubble-netting up close is to realise how rich the oceans around Ireland are. Here’s an extract from Eire Fhiáin, with Eoin’s lovely, natural, narration and his deep sense of wonder. And – he has a great voice and won the competition!

The photo is from an Independent article that nicely sums up audience reaction to the program

Yesterday we went on a Cultural Taste Tour of Bere Island. It was our first time and it’s no exaggeration to say that we fell in love with it. I won’t say much about it because Robert’s post will fill you in, but I CAN say that we’re already planning our next trip back there.

One of our favourite stalls in the regular Saturday market had also set up in the Street Market – Olives West Cork is our source for excellent olive oil and the best parmesan cheese, as well as an amazing variety of nibbles

The week finished, as it always does, with the Skibbereen Street Market, and I will leave you with a slideshow of this colourful extravaganza.

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Start planning now for next year! Everything books up quite quickly when the program is announced and if you leave it too late there may be no place to stay and no tables left unclaimed. It will be the among the best few days you’ve ever spent!

The Red Line – Bere Island

As part of the excellent Taste of West Cork food festival, we signed up for the Bere Island Cultural Taste Tour, and on a grey Saturday morning we drove off along the south side of the Beara Peninsula to Castletownbere. The Islands of West Cork are all fascinating to explore, in our experience, and each one is very different. This was my first visit to Bere Island, and I immediately want to go back there: this was, of necessity, a ‘whistlestop tour’, ably led by Ted O’Sullivan, probably a direct descendant of the famed O’Sullivan Bere (who deserves – and will get – a post of his own!) You may remember that the island – and the peninsula – has taken its name from the Spanish wife of Owen Mór, King of Ireland around 120AD.

Bere Island lies off the coast of the Beara Peninsula, which was in constant view as our bus took us to the eastern end on the narrow island roads – towards the ‘Red Line’

While the history of the island takes us back to the Bronze Age and beyond, more recent events have been left behind on the landscape – and in the memories of the islanders.

Upper – ancient history: Ardaragh Bronze Age wedge tomb beside the road to the east of the island with Hungry Hill beyond. In 1926 the tomb collapsed, and this was seen by some islanders as a ‘sign’ that the British might leave the occupied part of the island. Lower – modern history: looking from the island towards the Beara – British warships stationed in the bay circa 1914

Did you know that part of Bere Island remained in British hands well beyond the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921? This was one of the three Treaty Ports that were retained by the United Kingdom following the First World War, when there were fears that there might be a recurring naval threat to the islands of Britain and Ireland. The other two ports were Spike Island, in Cork Harbour, and Lough Swilly in the far north of the Irish state. Relationships between Ireland and Britain remained uneasy for many years but finally, in 1938, it was agreed that these deepwater ports should be handed over to the Irish Republic. Winston Churchill was appalled by the decision, and in an address to Parliament in that year he called it a ‘folly’:

…When the Irish Treaty was being shaped in 1922 I was instructed by the Cabinet to prepare that part of the Agreement which dealt with strategic reservations. I negotiated with Mr Michael Collins, and I was advised by Admiral Beatty who assured me that without the use of these ports it would be very difficult, perhaps almost impossible, to feed this Island in time of war. Queenstown and Berehaven shelter the flotillas which keep clear the approaches to the Bristol and English Channels, and Lough Swilly is the base from which the access to the Mersey and the Clyde is covered… These ports are, in fact, the sentinel towers of the western approaches, by which the 45,000,000 people in this Island so enormously depend on foreign food for their daily bread, and by which they can carry on their trade, which is equally important to their existence…

Until the handover in 1938 the eastern end of the island lay beyond ‘The Red Line’. The position of this line was pointed out to us on the tour, although we couldn’t see a ‘line’. In fact, no physical line did ever exist but there was a point beyond which Irish people could not proceed, and British forces stationed over the ‘line’ could not cross. Ted, our tour guide, recounted some amusing stories of those strange times. With typical Irish inventiveness, there were many instances of how the difficulties created by the ‘line’ were overcome. For a short while there was a prison on the British sector, right beside the ‘line’. It was used to incarcerate mainly political prisoners. Every weekend there would be a party held on the Irish side of the line which always included singing, dancing and drinking, and the prisoners joined in! Many politically important prisoners managed to escape, and the prison was known as a ‘leaky bucket’ because of this. A number of the British governors of the prison were removed during its short life because of their inability to contain their charges.

Lonehort Battery – built in 1899 by the Royal Engineers of the English army – housed two enormous 6-inch guns (still in place but very rusty) and is surrounded by a deep moat. There are plans to re-open the site as a historic monument

Lonehort is a natural harbour, believed to have been used by the Vikings. Archaeological excavations were carried out there in 1995 and confirmed the artificial breakwater as being Norse: there were also signs of a Viking shipyard here.

Lonehort – a Viking harbour and shipyard. The word means ‘Long Phort’, and is used to indicate Norse associations

One of the purposes of our tour was to introduce us to food produced on the island, and we ate in three establishments: The Shop and Cafe in Rerrin for soup, The Hotel for a fishcake lunch, and the Heritage Centre for a dessert and coffee. All provided good, delicious fare.

Our three food destinations. Top – the wonderful Shop at Rerrin; centre – The Hotel, open all year round (it looks as though it has interesting fare!) and lower – the modern Heritage Centre which has a gallery displaying the island’s history and culture as well as a good eatery

All too soon our short tour came to an end: we had to get back to catch the ferry. We missed several things: St Michael’s Holy Well and Church; views from Knockanallig (the highest point) and several standing stones including Gallán, which is exactly in the centre of the island. And it’s a great place for walking! We will return, perhaps for a few days in the winter, and complete our explorations. But many thanks to Ted and the Bere Island Projects Group for giving us such a comprehensive introduction to an intriguing community and its history.

Robert heading home after a grand day out!

Licking the Lizard – or The World Turned Upside Down

…Nothing was more natural than the desire to have a ‘last fling’ just before the beginning of Lent. On the Continent of Europe this became a public, communal revel, the carnival, but generally in Ireland the Shrove Tuesday celebration was a household festival with the family and their friends gathered about the fire-side, when the surplus eggs, milk and butter were used up in making pancakes, and even the most thrifty housewife did not object, as otherwise these perishable foodstuffs might go to waste. Some people kept the Christmas holly for the fire which baked the pancakes…

That’s my old friend Kevin Danaher again, reporting on the seasonal customs which we will be celebrating this week, described in The Year in Ireland Mercier Press, 1972. As he points out, the ‘last fling’ in Ireland is tame by comparison with Carnival in other countries, where it really can be the case of A World Turned Upside Down – authority is despatched to the sidelines while fools, mock kings, mock abbots and ‘Lords of Misrule’ conduct the proceedings. Hence the illustrations above, where malevolent hares get their own back on human hunters – and men lay eggs! Both of these are from the marginalia of thirteenth century manuscripts which are teeming with such anarchic visions.

Above – role reversal, a popular feature of carnival customs – and contemporary political upheaval which seems carnivalesque

An 18th century chapbook carries a remarkable and wonderful series of illustrations: The World Turned Upside Down or The Folly of Man, Exemplified in Twelve Comical Relations upon Uncommon Subjects. Here we find ‘the cart before the horse’, ‘children caring for their parents’ and many other thought-provoking reversals.

Back to Danaher:

…In Skibbereen, County Cork, after the fall of darkness on Shrove Tuesday evening the boys of the town amuse themselves by discharging home-made firecrackers. These were made by wrapping gunpowder in paper with a short fuse attached and enclosing the packet in a tight covering of the lead-foil lining of tea chests. Some, even more dangerous, were made from a short length of lead pipe stuffed with powder. These miniature bombs were thrown about the streets, at groups of people, when the sight of the glowing fuse flying through the air was the signal to scatter and run. The bang from these fireworks is said to have been very loud and when thrown at a belated wedding cavalcade, usually caused the horses to bolt, much to the public danger. Towards the end of the last century this custom was finally suppressed by an active police official… (ibid)

amorous hareJohn Dunton, an English writer and bookseller, visited Ireland and described various customs he encountered, in Teague Land: or A Merry Ramble to the Wild Irish (1698). Here’s one he observed in Naas, Co Kildare:

…The inhabitants of this place and the neighbourhood have a custom (how begun I could not learn) on Shrove Tuesday to meet on horseback in the fields, and wherever they spy a hare in her form, they make as wide a circle as the company can and the ground will permit, and someone is sent in to start poor puss, who cannot turn herself any way but she is repulsed with loud cries and so frightened that she falls dead in the magical circle, though sometimes she breaks through and escapes; if a greyhound or any other dog be found in the field, it is a thousand to one she loses her life; and thus after they have shouted two or three hares to death they disperse…

Hardly surprising, then, that the hares in the 13th century manuscript marginalia should want to get their revenge… And, unhappily, an evolution of this same barbarous sport, now under the name of ‘hare coursing’ is still permitted in Ireland! We live in a topsy turvy world, indeed.

better hunting haresAmhlaoibh Ó Suilleabháin, the schoolmaster of Callan, Co Kilkeeny reported a similarly unsavoury Shrove Tuesday custom in  1831:

…To-day is the day when cocks were pelted. It was a barbarous trick. The poor cock was tied to a post or a stone by a hard hemp cod, and sticks were thrown at it. He who killed it became owner of it. A penny was wagered on every shot. Recently this custom has receeded. I have not seen it for thirty years. It was an English custom…

Good to know that we can at least blame the English for that! Cock-throwing was also noted in the three volume Guide to Ireland published between 1841-1843 by Samuel Carter Hall (1800-1889), and his wife Anna Maria (1800-1881) …The day for this sport was Shrove Tuesday, a day which is still dedicated to games and amusements far less cruel and irrational… They went on to describe and illustrate pastimes more familiar to us.

hall's shrove tuesday

…The family group – and the “boys and girls” of the neighbours – gather round the fireside; and each in turn tries his or her skill in tossing the pancake. The tossing of the first is always alloted to the eldest unmarried daughter of the host, who performs the task not altogether without trepidation, for much of her “luck” during the year is supposed to depend on her good or ill success on the occasion. She tosses it, and usually so cleverly as to receive it back again on its surface, on its reverse, in the pan. Congratulations upon her fortune go round, and another makes the effort: perhaps this is a sad mischance; the pancake is either not turned or falls among the turf ashes; the unhappy maiden is then doomed – she can have no chance of marrying for a year at least – while the girl who has been lucky is destined to have her “pick of the boys” as soon as she likes…

We had better finish off with a pancake recipe – and who better than Monica Sheridan to provide a traditional Irish one?

Oh! Do I hear you asking where Licking the Lizard comes into all this? Here is Kevin Danaher to round things off:

…There was a common belief that to lick a lizard endowed the tongue with a cure for burns and scalds; this was especially effective if the lizard was licked on Shrove Tuesday…

hare with dog

Gary, Paul, and Nana’s Soup

Rowers Return

Two local lads, from Lisheen down the road, have stolen the hearts of everyone in West Cork. Everyone in Ireland, actually, and beyond.

On the stand

Gary and Paul rode the open-topped bus into Skibbereen on Monday night and then spoke from the stage at Fairfield

Gary and Paul O’Donovan won a silver medal in Rio in their rowing pairs class. They row for the Skibbereen Rowing Club, a local club that punches way above its weight in national and international competitions. The coach credited with that is the brilliant, but mono-syllabic, Dominic Casey. Taking Gary and Paul under his wing, he turned them into the hard-working athletes they are.

MUM AND NANA

In  the window on the left, the boys’ mother, Trish O’Donovan, and their grandmother (Nana), Mary Doab

Their parents’ devotion was sterling. Eoghan Harris’s Independent interview with their Mother, Trish, is perhaps one of the most revealing pieces of journalism about the O’Donovan Brothers phenomenon and what it takes to support an Olympian.

Waiting for the Open-Topped Bus

Gary and Paul are also dream interviewees – every sentence is a sound bite, delivered in pure West Cork accents, with artless but articulate insouciance. Their interviews are now the stuff of legend – but if you haven’t already seen them, take a look at this one done before the final race. What shines through, and makes them so endearing, is that they take their training, but not themselves, seriously.

Pub Window

Above: Left, Stella and Hugh sporting their ‘occasion wear’; Right, this young man let me take his photo in his Shteak and Spuds shirt. Below: Many of the Skibbereen merchants had decorated their windows

The classic quotes have already been immortalised and the T-shirts have been selling like hot cakes in Skibbereen. The night of their homecoming it seemed like the whole of West Cork turned up to welcome them, including us! It was great fun to be there, in the streets, waiting for the open-topped bus, and then to see them on the stage, with Dominic Casey, so obviously having the time of their lives.

Replay

We, thousands of us, re-lived their big moment on an enormous screen in the Skibbereen Fairfield

Someone who came in for special praise in one of their interviews was the boys’ grandmother – their Nana (the first of the interviews on this page). Coming in cold and hungry from rowing, they gratefully wolfed down her home-made soup and ‘brown cake.’ Here in West Cork when we talk about a ‘cake of bread’ – what we mean is that solid round mass of white or brown home-made soda bread that is one of the staples of our diets, and that tourists have come to love.

Following the Bus

It  seemed like the whole of West Cork turned out to greet them

In honour of Gary and Paul and their Nana, and using only locally grown and organic vegetables purchased at Levis’s of Ballydehob Wednesday Farmers’ Market, here is my recipe for Nana’s Soup. It’s vegetarian and gluten-free – and totally delicious! Serve with a wedge of brown bread if gluten is OK for you. (I’ve become more sensitised to gluten issues recently as a dear little niece has been diagnosed with coeliac disease.) 

Levis market

Local growers sell their fresh vegetables at Levis’s pub in Ballydehob on Wednesday mornings

NANA’S SOUP: THE RECIPE

Vegetables: I used kabocha squash, onions, carrots, parsnips, potatoes and green beans, but you can use any robust vegetables that are in season.

Other ingredients: 1 can organic tomatoes, tapioca starch, vegetable stock (I used Marigold Swiss Veg Bouillon, but Knorr Veg Stock Pot is also gluten-free)), fresh or dried herbs.

Cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds and roast in a hot oven for about 20 minutes. Leave to cool. Once cool, scoop out the flesh of the squash and chop roughly.

Peel and roughly chop the onions, potatoes, carrots and parsnips. Top and tail the green beans and cut in half or thirds. Chop the herbs (I used parsley sage, oregano and fennel from my garden, but any combination that suits you is fine).

Sweat the onions over medium heat in butter or olive oil until translucent. Over the onions, scatter about 2tbs of tapioca starch (this make it gluten-free, but if gluten is not a problem, just use flour) and stir until well mixed and starting to thicken. Pour in a can of organic tomatoes, the herbs, and a cup or two of vegetable stock. Stir until well mixed, then add all the vegetables. Bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer for at least an hour, preferably two or even three.

Soup and brown cake

After a bowl of this, you too can Pull Like a Dog!

Gary and Paul aren’t intimidated by a ‘bit of wind’. This is why – Skibbereen Rowing Club is on the beautiful , and breezy, Ilen River

Summer Markets

Long Island

Our West Cork markets – Skibbereen, Bantry and Schull – are thriving. Each has a distinct character and all of them are fun for wandering, browsing and buying.

Top right: A basket of scotch eggs from West Cork Pies; bottom left: April Danann from Rebel Foods

Skibbereen Market on Saturday mornings has become the iconic foodie market of West Cork. Everyone goes – it’s a social occasion as much as a shopping trip. Yesterday, Darina Allen of Ballymaloe breezed through when I was chatting with Eithne McCarthy, and rumour had it that Saoirse Ronan had been spotted earlier.

Eithne

Everybody loves Eithne McCarthy’s home made cakes, breads, jams and chutneys.

There’s music and coffee and crepes and bean burgers and sausages and cupcakes and scotch eggs and anything else you can happily munch on as you wander.

Many stall are devoted to locally produced and artisan foods. Perhaps the best known is Gubbeen, famous for cheese and smoked meats, but not far behind is West Cork Pies, Brown Envelope Seeds, April Danann’s Rebel Foods (wild, foraged and fermented), and Union Hall Smoked Fish.

Fingal

Top: Fingal Ferguson of Gubbeen; Lower left: Union Hall Smoked Fish; Lower Right; Madeline McKeever of Brown Envelope Seeds

But there’s also a whole array of stalls selling chocolates, baked goods, chutneys and pickles, free range eggs and the hens who lay them, vegetables, honey, vinegars, sausages, quiches, berries, olives, seaweeds, and more cheese.

It’s not just food, of course. There are flowers and bedding plants, wooden chairs, magic wands, dolls, jewellery, wool, carved bowls, antiques, books, junk, and yes, knitted tea cosies.

The Schull market is much smaller but has many of the same stalls. Schull is the quintessential tourist town – heaving in the summer – and the market here goes from Easter to October. It’s on Sunday mornings and has a lovely, casual, local vibe, with people dropping down after mass and everyone getting caught up on the latest news.

Schull Crowds

Like Skibbereen, it’s madly busy, so expect to queue and just enjoy the ambience and the music.

Cheese Queue

Bantry, on Friday mornings, is the largest market. Although there are some of the same food stalls, it seems to attract different vendors than the other two. This is the market where people shop for second hand goods, curios and collectibles, tools, carpets, clothing, work boots, trees and shrubs, and Michael Collins posters.

Bantry Market

A visit to West Cork wouldn’t be complete without making a trip to the market. Heck – make it to all three of them!

Vials

Say Cheese!

Cheese Bundle

Goats Cheese, that is: creamy, delicious – and home-made! Goats cheese is what I made today at our friend and neighbour Nick’s Rossbrin Permaculture Farm on the shores of Roaringwater Bay. The ingredients? Happy goats, a couple of ingenious WWOOFers and eager students.

Nick and Goats 2

Nick bringing the goats home in the evening

Nick has a smallholding and tries to be as ecologically sensitive, environmentally friendly and sustainable as possible. His WWOOFers seem to like the place and some stay for extended periods or keep coming back. (For those of our readers who are not familiar with the concept of WWOOFing – take a look at the WWOOF Ireland website.) Jasmine from Taiwan has become a keen forager and cheesemaker, and Helene from France loves to experiment with natural flavours. Recently there was a Slow Food event on the farm (wild garlic pesto – forage and make) which we couldn’t attend, so when this opportunity came up I jumped at the chance to sign up to learn how to make goats cheese.

Helene and Jasmine

Helene and Jasmine – cheese makers extraordinaire!

I had this idea that cheese was a long slow process involving ageing in caves and something called rennet so I was intrigued that we would make and take away goats cheese in one afternoon.

Diluting the citric acid

Jasmine dissolves the citric acid – available in any pharmacy

Jasmine and Helene had milked the goats that morning so the milk was fresh, although it can also be a few days old – the older the milk the stronger the distinctive chèvre taste. We started by adding dissolved citric acid to the milk, drop by drop, and stirring, while it sat on a moderate heat. The idea is to add the citric acid very slowly while the temperature rises to 180-190F. This process pasteurises the milk and starts the process of making curds.

Left: Jasmine and Helene and students Manon, Bríd and Maria. Right: adding the citric acid drop by drop and patiently stirring

Once it has reached the proper temperature the milk is allowed to cool a little then poured into cheesecloth-lined colanders to separate the curds and the whey. Since the next step is to let it drip slowly through the cheesecloth, we enjoyed some tea and cake and then we took ourselves off for a wander around Nick’s farm.

Julian straining

Through the cheeseclothUpper: Julian strains the heated milk. Lower: left to drain

We walked down to Jasmine’s seaweed-gathering beach and made a quick inspection of Nick’s ingenious vegetable island. Why grow vegetables on an island? Easy – no rabbits and no slugs! Nick practices Hügelkultur on this plot.

Once back in the kitchen we inspected the cheese and saw that the whey had drained away to our satisfaction. To continue the process we tied the cheesecloth up to make a ball and suspended the cheese over pots for a while longer.

All tied up

During the next wait period Jasmine and Helene showed us how to make seaweed appetisers. Jasmine had harvested sugar kelp and sea spaghetti that morning and together we made seaweed crisps and sea-spaghetti bruschetta. It sounds a bit weird, I know, but honestly, they were delicious.

Jasmine had washed the sugar kelp and hung it out to dry along with the other washing. The recipe for the crisps and bruschetta is at the end of the post

By then, we were ready to finish the cheese. First we added a little salt and then decided on the flavouring. On Helene’s advice we selected cumin and mustard for one and sundried tomatoes and basil for the other. A little tasting, a final lesson in wrapping, and we were done!

I love goats cheese and have several favourite recipes so I’ll be trying out a couple this week. It’s going to feel really good to casually drop into the conversation that, oh yes – I made it myself. And if that’s not totally and strictly true, I’m sure none of you will tell on me. Right?

Recipes