Sightseeing and Sampling at Ireland's "Food Paradise" Festival
With a temperate climate, fresh sea air and rich soil warmed by the Gulf Stream swerving nearby, West Cork at the southwestern tip of Ireland is an ideal location for agriculture to thrive. Recent years have seen a resurgence of natural farming, and its bounty is highlighted each autumn in the Taste of West Cork. For ten days in September, 32 towns and 8 islands hosted 188 events and participants were treated to myriad activities -- beekeeping workshops, gourmet walking tours, elegant candlelit dinners held in historic homes. Arriving just after the opening weekend, I missed the opening few days but did attend sessions for almost a week. Picking out events from each day's list was daunting, but here is what I was able to taste and learn.
Arriving four days after the festival officially started, I drove straight from Shannon Airport to the Michael Collins Center in Clonakilty to attend a highly informative lecture and slide show detailing the region's local hero who became the martyr of the 1916-22 Revolution and Civil War when this area was a hotbed of fervor supporting separation from England. While knowledgeable Tim Crowley lectured, his colleague baked a delicious soda bread over the open fire. It's aroma was a treat to us all, and after it was popped from the pan, four lucky raffle winners each took home a quarter chunk.
From there I went straight up to April Danann's farm house for a fascinating session on how to create ginger bugs, "mothers", SCOBY's and other starters essential for producing probiotic sourdough bread, vinegar, kambucha beverages, sauerkraut, all foods essential for healthy gut environments. A food scientist, April was so convincing that I now down a tablespoon of vinegar every day -- and her blends of elderberry, blackberry, ginger, are far more delicious than store-bought brands. The chewy sourdough loaf she cut and served at the end of the session was one of the most delicious foods I've ever eaten.
The next morning I drove over from my own little farm to the tour and tasting at Glenilen Farm . The Kingston Family raises their own grass fed cows which supply the milk for the creamy fruit yoghurts, cheesecake, and mousse. After watching the process we were treated to tea and scones in the farmyard where a cut-out cow allowed the children to practice milking skills.
Most of the towns are ten to twenty minutes distant from each other so it was easy to drive over to Bantry for two workshops at Organico. Paul Cobb, pioneer of seaweed agriculture and proprietor of Roaring Water Sea Vegetable Company, treated us to samples of "burgers, sausages, sushi" made of the Wakame seaweed he cultivates in the nearby harbor. All of them were chewy and delicious.
Christine Meadows offered sprouts to sample explaining that within a few days in a moist environment seedlings emerge from bean, greens, and herb seeds becoming tasty and nutritious garnishes for salads.
After all the food sampling, exercise was a good option. A group assembled at the local walking center Top of the Rock for a hike down the steep hill to the waterfall and rapids of the picturesque Ilen River before busing back up to the centre to sample the specialty scones that can be ordered as breakfast for hikers who overnight in the efficient pod units.
Another short drive took me back to Caheragh where April Danann's son Trevor lectured on beekeeping. After a slide show we adjourned to the nearby field where Trevor's own bees are kept in top bar hives, raised without chemical sprays, and fed a nutritious "honey bee tea" to strengthen them. It was interesting to learn that each hive has a personality -- aggressive, calm, industrious -- depending on the disposition of the queen.
I departed early for the twenty minute drive to Killeena House, a charming historic lodge with touches of Holland. "Fairy Legends and Traditions" was the topic as two local experts Bernie McCarthy and Emma Bidwell showed slides discussing the historic and cultural importance of Banshees, Shefros, Cluricaunes, and other Irish spirits originally recorded in 1798 by Thomas Crofton Croker. During a break, lemon and seaweed-sweetened cakes were served with tea and coffee.
I had obtained the last, late dinner reservation at Mary Ann's, the famous old-fashioned restaurant in Castletownshend so when I walked in Fergus at the bar deduced and announced "You must be Sharon." From the "Taste of the Sea" menu prepared by Chef Trish O'Mahony I selected prawn bisque, local lobster, and a blackberry and apple cake.
All day Wednesday the local Fields SuperValu supermarket hosted "Meet the Producers" with local purveyors offering samples to shoppers. I stopped by, then skipped ten other daytime options in order to board a bright red ferry boat and cruise up the Ilen River from Baltimore Harbor to the house and lodgings on Inish Beg island. We were greeted by head gardener Tony O'Mahony who led a tour of the walled garden where all the produce for the overnight and restaurant guests is grown. After plucking lemon verbena, rosemary, chilis and learning how the crops are rotated, we were escorted to the manor's elegant dining room laid out with (more) scones and thick clotted cream and strawberry preserves.
That evening West Cork Brewing held a whiskey tasting session in Baltimore’s Bushe's Bar. An overflow crowd was invited to compare the local liquor, brewed in Skibbereen, with over a dozen other international alternatives to compare it to.
Ballymaloe's Rachel Allen, one of the notable Irish celebrity chefs appeared that night for a demonstration and tasting at Skibbereen's West Cork Hotel. Preceding her talk, Alan Shannon who is chef at the local Drinagh store prepared a selection of dishes which were passed around to the overflow crowd for everyone to sample.
I ducked out and walked around the corner to Annie Mays Restaurant and Bar where local bartender Padraig Hurley was concocting beverages: a "Taste o’ West Cork" cocktail (West Cork gin blended with elderflower cider and apple flavors), daiquiris flavored with local strawberries, pina coladas, and other mixtures for patrons who were allowed to select two to sip with a choice of duck salad or fish and chips. While we dined, a group played lively traditional Irish music.
Castletownshend is one of the region's most picturesque villages. Thursday morning we met up with Robert Townshend (of THE Castle Townshends) who guided us through town on a tour which set out from historic Drishane House which was the home of Edith Somerville, renowned for the hilarious "Irish RM" stories she wrote with Martin Ross. Led down the steep main street which is bisected by a tree that grows smack in the middle of the road (Ireland's original roundabout) we visited the church and found the cow noted stain glass artist Harry Clarke had hidden in the altar window before Robert escorted us right down to the castle where he grew up. Now a waterside B&B we toured it with his sister Anne who pointed out all the ancestral portraits before we adjourned to the courtyard for seafood paella prepared by a family niece.
Driving back, I stopped at the tour of Union Hall Smoked Fish. For twenty years the Nolan family has been producing salmon slices, salmon and mackerel pates which are renowned local delicacies. After touring the facility we were invited to take home samples at discounted prices.
Back in Ballydehob, food blogger Louise Kelly was guest chef demonstrating "Vegan Cooking" to a crowd gathered at Budd's Restaurant.
Because most of the sessions are limited in size, bookings can be hard to come by, but I managed to secure one of the intimate tables at Bantry's tiny, family run Fish Kitchen for "A Feast of Bantry Seafood," featuring five courses, many of the mussels and fish had been caught in the harbor outside.
The day started early with the annual "West Fork" breakfast sponsored by the local "Southern Star" newspaper. I happened to be seated with the paper's managing editor and a local member of parliament for a full Irish breakfast of egg, sausage, Clonakilty black pudding, tomatoes, soda bread. We were greeted by the "Taste of West Cork" organizer Helen Collins, director Fiona Field, and the newspaper's Managing Director Sean Mahon who introduced speaker Tara McCarthy who lectured on the plans of Irish Sea Fisheries Board for branding and marketing local aquaculture.
Driving back east I connected to the Clonakilty Walking Food Tour which turned out to be a six hour extravaganza, sampling local foods throughout the village. Led by Kate Ryan who runs the regular tours all summer and on demand in winter, we commenced upstairs at The Aris Cafe where we sampled three farmhouse cheeses produced by nearby families: the Ferguson family's Gubbeen, the Steele family's Mileen, and a Lynch family water buffalo mozzarella.
Proceeding down Wolfe Tone street we stopped at the Edward Twomey butcher shop, the original home of renowned Clonakilty black pudding -- a concoction of beef blood and pinhead oatmeal that is far more delicious that its name indicates.
Further down the street, at M.J. O'Neill & Sons, traditional Irish butcher Haulie O'Neill, is the third generation selling "nose to tail" meat -- all the beef in the shop was raised, slaughtered, and butchered by them.
The Baking Emporium specializes in sourdough breads and gluten free pastries. Christian Haubold and Sorcha Bracke Conway sell different varieties of wholesome breads every day.
The Clonakilty Farmers Market has been in operation every Friday, rain or shine for over 400 years. Since it was Friday, our group stopped by and Kate led us to booths selling Rebel Farms flavored vinegars, West Cork Larder Scotch pies, and Hungry Crow vegan chocolate candies.
On any given day there are 18 flavors of ice cream on sale at the Ice Cream Shop, Caroline Elliott mixes them up right in the shop from milk so locally sourced that she can name Bluebell, her favorite cow. For customers the favorite, best-selling flavor is vanilla honeycomb its creamy vanilla interspersed with crunchy bits of actual honeycomb.
The tiny back room of Allison Robert's house may be the world's smallest chocolate factory where she buys, roasts, and grinds the beans and creates bars of handcrafted, small batch Clonakilty Chocolate. Milky Milk, Decadent Dark, Seriously Minted, Chili Chai and other flavors are sold in biodegradable wrappers.
Rounding off the tour, we stopped at Scannell's pub for a taste of the local brew. Clonakilty was once known as Brewerytown, and "Thirsty" Frank Fredrikson's local lager is so new that we were sampling a brand not yet on sale in stores.
Despite six tempting dinner events that evening, I decided to take a night off to be up early the next morning to go -- kayaking!!!
Versatile kayaks are the best method of sourcing seafood, and we went out with Maria Kennedy, a local "sea vegetable connoisseur." Meeting for delicious tea and coffees at the Union Hall Coffee Shop, we examined and sampled half a dozen types of local seaweeds and then drove down to Reen Pier where champion rowers Jim Kennedy and Colin Wong of Atlantic Sea Kayaks () installed us in our kayaks and we set out in search of dulse, carigeenan, sugar kelp, pepper dulse, serrated dulse, sea spaghetti. Thriving in a protected pollutant-free cove, it was all around us to be plucked or cut and chewed on the spot. I particularly took to the crunch of sea spaghetti. Maria brought scissors and plastic bags so all of us could harvest a selection to take home. Returning to the pier we feasted on hummus and carrot cake made with seaweed ingredients.
Saturday night fourteen lucky participants were invited to an elegant candlelit dinner hosted by Thomas and Jane Sommerville in Drishane House. Too late for a reservation, I was invited to come by for a glass of champagne in the drawing room before dinner. Local teenage piano prodigy Junah Smyth serenaded us as we chatted, sipped, and admired the views down to the sea whose waters and air are a source of such bounty.
Sunday's festival grand finale was a Sunday Street Market held throughout Skibbereen. Step dancers performed, the band from the local high school serenaded and step dancers performed while a sellout crowd feasted on samples -- Roaring Water seaweed burgers, Caroline's ice cream, April Danann's vinegars and other foods familiar by now. There were also several new items -- quail eggs, probiotic sauerkraut, Kinsale cheeses, seaweed sauces. Many of the regional items are carried by local supermarkets and can be obtained every day all year.
Late that afternoon, a bus took some participants on an "Eclectic Taste of West Cork Tour" scheduled to wind up with music at 1 AM. I would like to have joined them but it was time to close up my farmhouse and fly home, returning to the States well fed and well informed.