188 REASONS TO BITE INTO "A TASTE OF WEST CORK

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.

A multi-page program listed Taste of West Cork Events
A multi-page program listed Taste of West Cork Events

MONDAY

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. 

Map of local Michael Collins sites
Map of local Michael Collins sites

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.

Food scientist and naturopathic nutritionist April Danann demonstrates the importance of gut healthy foods
Food scientist and naturopathic nutritionist April Danann demonstrates the importance of gut healthy foods
April Danann's Rebel Farm apple cider vinegar
April Danann's Rebel Farm apple cider vinegar
Ingredients for healthy sauerkrauts
Ingredients for healthy sauerkrauts

TUESDAY

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.

Glenilen yoghurt is packed in glass bottles
Glenilen yoghurt is packed in glass bottles
Guests at the Glenilen farm visit
Guests at the Glenilen farm visit
Young guests practice milking
Young guests practice milking
Scones with Glenilen clotted cream and berries
Scones with Glenilen clotted cream and berries

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.

Seaweed sausage and burgers
Seaweed sausage and burgers

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.

Christine Meadows serves sprouts
Christine Meadows serves sprouts
Fresh bean sprouts are full of nutrients
Fresh bean sprouts are full of nutrients

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.

Hiking trails start at Top Of The Rock
Hiking trails start at Top Of The Rock
Hikers approach the Ilen River
Hikers approach the Ilen River
Hikers pause to hear history commentary
Hikers pause to hear history commentary
Hikers are rewarded with scones
Hikers are rewarded with scones
Overnight hikers can stay in compact pods
Overnight hikers can stay in compact pods
Self-catering pods are comfortably furnished
Self-catering pods are comfortably furnished

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.

Trevor Danann explained the types of bees
Trevor Danann explained the types of bees
Trevor's hives are kept in a meadow near the house
Trevor's hives are kept in a meadow near the house
Trevor's sister is a fledgling beekeeper
Trevor's sister is a fledgling beekeeper

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.

Killeen House shows Dutch influences
Killeen House shows Dutch influences
Slides iillustrated the lecture on Irish fairy legends
Slides iillustrated the lecture on Irish fairy legends
Thomas Crofton Croker collected Irish fairy tales
Thomas Crofton Croker collected Irish fairy tales
Lemon and seaweed cakes were served at intermission
Lemon and seaweed cakes were served at intermission

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.

Mary Ann's is a popular Castletownshend restaurant
Mary Ann's is a popular Castletownshend restaurant
Fergus tends bar at Mary Ann's
Fergus tends bar at Mary Ann's
Local lobster was the main course
Local lobster was the main course
Mixed "vege" were served with two types of potatoes
Mixed "vege" were served with two types of potatoes
Dessert was blackberry and apple cake with (more) clotted cream!
Dessert was blackberry and apple cake with (more) clotted cream!

WEDNESDAY

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.

Scotch pie samples offered at Fields
Scotch pie samples offered at Fields
Samples from Skeaghanore West Cork Duck at Fields
Samples from Skeaghanore West Cork Duck at Fields
We boarded a ferry to cruise up the Ilen River
We boarded a ferry to cruise up the Ilen River
The cruise departed from Baltimore harbor
The cruise departed from Baltimore harbor
Our cruise passed sailboats
Our cruise passed sailboats
The Ilen River flows toward the sea
The Ilen River flows toward the sea
Contented cattle grazed on the riverbank
Contented cattle grazed on the riverbank
Tony O'Mahony (at left) led the tour
Tony O'Mahony (at left) led the tour
Inish Beg landscaping is inventive throughout
Inish Beg landscaping is inventive throughout
Produce is raised in walled garden plots
Produce is raised in walled garden plots
In the dining room we were served  scones and clotted cream (!)
In the dining room we were served scones and clotted cream (!)

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.

A whiskey tasting was held in Bushe's Bar
A whiskey tasting was held in Bushe's Bar

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.

Rachel Allen led a cooking demonstration
Rachel Allen led a cooking demonstration
Rachel Allen has written several popular cookbooks
Rachel Allen has written several popular cookbooks

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.

Bartenders concocted special drinks
Bartenders concocted special drinks
The Taste o' West Cork & The Strawberry Daiquiri
The Taste o' West Cork & The Strawberry Daiquiri
Diners enjoyed the special cocktails (and lagers) with dinner
Diners enjoyed the special cocktails (and lagers) with dinner
Musicians played traditional Irish tunes
Musicians played traditional Irish tunes

THURSDAY

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.

Robert Townshend led up the path to Drishane House
Robert Townshend led up the path to Drishane House
Drishane was the home of famous author Edith Sommerville
Drishane was the home of famous author Edith Sommerville
The face of a cow is concealed in the altar window
The face of a cow is concealed in the altar window
Guide Robert Townshend pointed out memorials to his forbearers
Guide Robert Townshend pointed out memorials to his forbearers
Castle Townshend is the family's traditional home
Castle Townshend is the family's traditional home
Seaside view of Castletownshend
Seaside view of Castletownshend
Townshend family photos and memorabilia are on display
Townshend family photos and memorabilia are on display
Some rooms in the castle now are B&B
Some rooms in the castle now are B&B
Seafood paella was served on the castle lawn
Seafood paella was served on the castle lawn

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.

Union Hall showed us how salmon is sliced
Union Hall showed us how salmon is sliced
After the tour, snacks were served
After the tour, snacks were served
Guests could take home products at a discounted price
Guests could take home products at a discounted price

Back in Ballydehob, food blogger Louise Kelly was guest chef demonstrating "Vegan Cooking" to a crowd gathered at Budd's Restaurant.

Louise Kelly demonstrated Vegan Cooking
Louise Kelly demonstrated Vegan Cooking

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.

Fish Kitchen's first course of local sea treats
Fish Kitchen's first course of local sea treats

FRIDAY

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. 

The Southern Star hosted the West Fork breakfast
The Southern Star hosted the West Fork breakfast
Tara McCarthy lectured on Irish aquaculture
Tara McCarthy lectured on Irish 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.

Kate Ryan leads Clonakilty Food Walking Tours
Kate Ryan leads Clonakilty Food Walking Tours
Three local cheeses were served for sampling
Three local cheeses were served for sampling

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.

Liam Murphy explained the origin of Clonakilty black pudding
Liam Murphy explained the origin of Clonakilty black pudding

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.

Haulie O'Neill raises cattle to produce the meats and sausages sold in his butcher shop
Haulie O'Neill raises cattle to produce the meats and sausages sold in his butcher shop

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 bread list changes daily
The bread list changes daily
For sale at the baking emporium
For sale at the baking emporium

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.

Hungry Crow sells healthy treats
Hungry Crow sells healthy treats
Justifiable desserts
Justifiable desserts

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.

Caroline Elliott makes each batch of ice cream
Caroline Elliott makes each batch of ice cream
Ice cream flavors vary daily
Ice cream flavors vary daily
We each got to sample a favorite flavor
We each got to sample a favorite flavor

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.

Allison Roberts is the local chocolatier
Allison Roberts is the local chocolatier
Chocolate bars are made in the tiny kitchen
Chocolate bars are made in the tiny kitchen

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. 

Tojo Beer is one of the city's newest products
Tojo Beer is one of the city's newest products
The tour concludes at a friendly outdoor pub
The tour concludes at a friendly outdoor pub

Despite six tempting dinner events that evening, I decided to take a night off to be up early the next morning to go -- kayaking!!!

SATURDAY

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.

The kayakers assemble at the popular local Coffee Shop
The kayakers assemble at the popular local Coffee Shop
Maria Kennedy introduces us to sea vegetables
Maria Kennedy introduces us to sea vegetables
At the cove Jim Kennedy conducts kayak orientation
At the cove Jim Kennedy conducts kayak orientation
Co-guide Colin Wong is a white water expert
Co-guide Colin Wong is a white water expert
All suited up we were ready to take off
All suited up we were ready to take off
Heading toward the sheltered cove
Heading toward the sheltered cove
Maria scrambled on the rocks collecting samples
Maria scrambled on the rocks collecting samples
There were several species to harvest
There were several species to harvest
Back ashore served Maria seaweed treats
Back ashore served Maria seaweed treats
Seaweed sweetened carrot cake was a favorite snack
Seaweed sweetened carrot cake was a favorite snack

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.

Champagne preceded an elegant small dinner at Drishane House
Champagne preceded an elegant small dinner at Drishane House

SUNDAY

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.

A Sunday market concluded the festival
A Sunday market concluded the festival
Local dancers performed on stage
Local dancers performed on stage
Quail egg samples
Quail egg samples
Jam samples
Jam samples
Seaweed salad samples
Seaweed salad samples
Whole milk samples
Whole milk samples
Kinsale cheese samples
Kinsale cheese samples
Tiny West Cork Taster
Tiny West Cork Taster
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