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!

Food Glorious Food

Taste of West Cork

There’s yet another festival on at the moment, and this one is a yummy one: A Taste of West Cork Food Festival. It will culminate next Sunday in a giant market that will take over the main street of Skibbereen, but in the meantime every day brings something new – a farm tour, cooking and fish-smoking demonstrations, walking and boating tours, tasting menus, and special dinners.

Finola and Regina

Finola and Regina

Today we attended a lecture by Regina Sexton, a brilliant writer, broadcaster and food historian. Under the title “Teaching the Poor to Cook in 1847,” Regina led us through the contents of what might have been one of the earliest ever Irish recipe books. Published by a member of the Northern Irish gentry, it instructed the Irish ‘Peasantry’ on how to cook the foods available at the time as substitutes for the potato, then in catastrophic failure due to blight. Revealing as a document of the social and political philosophy of its time, it was eerily poignant given the death toll occurring all around at the height of the Great Famine. I was keenly aware of our surroundings at Liss Ard House, once a mansion where people enjoyed a fine standard of living, while the town of Skibbereen, down the road, had been an epicentre of starvation.

Everything locally grown!

Everything locally grown!

I have written before about West Cork Food (here and here): this really is Foodie Heaven, with fresh vegetables, artisan cheeses, homemade preserves and relishes, breads of every description and a wide variety of seafood and organic meats all readily available not only in the weekend markets but in local shops and supermarkets. To add to this, my friend and neighbour Hildegard has been generous with her garden and we have been enjoying fresh beans, zucchini and lettuce and flavouring dishes with her wonderful basil and savoury.

Robert and I love to eat breakfast out as a treat. On one recent foray I ordered boiled eggs and it brought me back to my childhood and time-honoured rituals. Lift the top off the egg with a spoon, drop in butter and salt and put the top back on. Cut your toast into fingers to dip into the buttery yolk. When you have finished your egg, turn it upside-down in the egg cup and present it to an unsuspecting sibling.

Breakfast in Skibbereen

Breakfast in Skibbereen