Christmas Markets

En route to Goleen, every couple of Km, a reindeer points the way to the Christmas Market.

En route to Kilcrohane, every couple of kilometres, a reindeer points the way to the Christmas Market

‘Tis the season…and oh dear, I am afraid to tot up what we have spent at the Christmas markets here in West Cork. We tell ourselves that we have moved here with nothing to hang on a Christmas tree; that we are supporting local entrepreneurs, artists, craftspeople and fund-raisers; that we need to lay in food for visitors; but the truth is that we find the whole Christmas market thing irresistible.

Amanda and her beautiful Wayfarer Cards; December weather in Kilcrohane; furniture and art in Ballydehob

Amanda and her beautiful Wayfarer Cards; blue skies in Kilcrohane; furniture and art in Ballydehob

We love the colour, the carols, and the stalls that only appear at this time of year. We love the ones run by kids – raffling for their youth group, or trying to make a bit of cash by knitting and stitching and sawing and hammering. We love the amazing array of wonderful foods: we have come to know many of the vendors as friends and it feels good to know where your food is coming from.

Raising money for the club; we made them ourselves!

Raising money for the club; elf workshop; we made them ourselves!

This year we have attended markets in Goleen, Ballydehob, Kilcrohane and Skibbereen – so far! Each community is proud of its market and each one has a distinct character. The weather has been marvellous too – a real bonus since at least part of every market is outside.

Everyone loves Eithne's baking; Josephine and he delicious Hannah Quill preserves; Paul and Anne and their Fabulous West Cork Pies; smoked fish, quial's eggs and Coolea cheese.

Everyone loves Eithne’s baking; Josephine and her delicious Hannah Quill preserves; Paul and Anne and their fabulous West Cork Pies; smoked fish, quail’s eggs and Coolea Cheese

I think we might be able to sport a respectable Christmas tree now…and we certainly won’t starve!

Part of the haul.

Part of the haul

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

To Market, To Market

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…becomes this

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Lunch at Ard Glas

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West Cork Pies

We are fortunate to have two excellent farmers’ markets on our doorstep: the Bantry Market on Fridays and the Skibbereen Market on Saturdays. We go, just to wander, not really needing anything – but we always emerge with a bag full. We love to buy carrots and parsnips covered in this morning’s earth, and scrub them up under the outside tap back at Ard Glas. The fish stall ladies will fillet a whole fish for you in a trice, and give you hints on the best way to cook it. The numerous homemade bread and cake stalls have started to load up their tables with mince pies and Christmas puddings. A new stall, West Cork Pies, sells the world’s yummiest Steak in Murphy’s Pie (Murphy’s is the Cork Guinness), Chicken and Leek Pie, and a variety of pasties. I am putting in an order for Christmas, to take up to Dublin. Our lunch often consists of cheese from the Bantry cheese stall, with Courgette and Ginger Chutney picked up in Skibb, and (I know I shouldn’t) a slice of chocolate biscuit cake from one of the baking stalls.

2012-10-20 11.06.45I love to chat to the stall owners and ask about their produce. Trouble is, it’s hard to walk away without buying something, so now I have two packets of nutritious seaweed from the charming seaweed man, and I’m not quite sure what to do with them. Fortunately, Robert rescued me after a long conversation with the wood carver before I felt I had to buy a headboard.

At Bantry there’s even a Fight for Irish Freedom stall, selling books and images and with rebel music blaring out from speakers. I stop here to wonder what all the English people who call West Cork home make of it all. We move on to the chickens, the colourful kilims, oh…and there’s the guy with the lovely French soap!

kilimsFreedom Stall

West Cork Food

When we chose West Cork, we had no idea we were landing in Foodie Heaven: or rather, a former Foodie Heaven. The recession has hit local producers and fine dining establishments, many of which have closed.

The ‘Fuchsia Brand’ website – Fuchsia is the ubiquitous hedgerow flower hereabouts – a kind of West Cork quality assurance organization for local produce, hasn’t been updated since 2008, although other websites point to farmers’ markets and food festivals. The West Cork Artisan Awards website explains the West Cork food signature thus: It is the individual flourish in an artisan’s way of working that brings forth the best in everything, whether it’s the best loaf of bread, the best farmhouse cheese, the best potatoes, or the best beef. This is the West Cork way: a way of life first, a business second.

Whatever about the wonderful local cheeses, the yoghurt and sausages, what we have found here is that food tastes fresh and homegrown in a way I had almost forgotten in Canada. In the presence of new potatoes I believe in God, and my faith has been given a boost here with a bag of potatoes from Saturday’s Skibbereen market freshly dug that morning. The woman at the fish stall filleted a whole plaice for us and we bought some tiny round squash, about the size of hurling sliotars (like an American baseball). Saturday night’s dinner – delicious!
An Irish staple is boiled bacon and cabbage. I adapted that idea to a hearty soup with a base of leeks and lashings of root vegetables (squash, parsnips, beets, carrots and potatoes) and a great slab of green (unsmoked) bacon. We’ve been eating it for days now, with brown soda bread and aged Gubeen cheese.
We have found excellent coffee almost everywhere we go, often accompanied by scones or lemon drizzle cake. On a recent trip to the Mizen we stopped at The Gateway Restaurant in Durrus for coffee and were seduced by their pear and chocolate tort: the perfect end to an afternoon meandering around the coast of West Cork .