A woolly encounter

There I was, minding my own business, out for my walk and enjoying the scenery when suddenly, I saw it standing at the bottom of the field.

As you all know by now, we live on the Sheep’s Head Way, a track that allows walkers to travel along the Peninsula through landscape, which can only be described as stunning. Winding its way over ancient bogs, across mountain paths and skirting old coastal roads, the Sheep’s Head Way attracts thousands of tourists every year who come for the unspoilt scenery, the hospitality and the wildlife. From it, you can sometimes see whales and dolphins off in the Bay.

One of the markers for the Sheep's Head Way

Making my way along the section known as the ‘Funeral Path’, I too was enjoying the scenery. With the waves crashing on Carbery Island in Dunmanus Bay and the birds singing in the hedgerows, the sun was shining and all was right with the world. It was then I saw it, in the field running parallel with the walking path. At first I thought: ‘It’s a sheep, they’re everywhere, it’s the Sheep’s Head Peninsula after all’. The ‘sheep’ was now looking directly at me; I noticed that it was in the field all on its own. I also noticed that it was now moving towards me and picking up speed.Close encounters of the woolly kind

I stopped. It stopped. I took a few steps; it began to charge towards me like a woolly cruise missile. Now, you might think it strange but even at this point I still thought it was a sheep. You see, where I grew up, the only sheep we saw were roasted in the oven and served with mint sauce.

I stopped, frozen, as the sheep, which I could now see was clearly a ram, barrelled towards me at high speed. He stopped suddenly about a metre from the fence. [Sorry, didn’t I mention there was a wire fence between the rampaging ram and me? Well, there was.]

Here's looking at you, kid

Anyway, when I took a few steps, the ram galloped into the middle of the field, turned and made another run at me. I walked on, the ram came with me. Every few steps he would run out into the middle of the field and then come charging back stopping only a few metres from me. As I continued on the path, I noticed that in the adjacent field silently watching the ram and myself was a group of about twenty sheep. This was the reason the ram was determined to show me who the boss was; these lovelies were his ‘ladies’. Oh yeah, there would be some major lovin’ going on when the farmer let this big boy out of solitary confinement.

As I left I thought I heard ‘Yeah, keep walking and don’t come back this way either’.

I’m lucky I made it out alive.

A few rays of sun over the Mizen Peninsula

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Art and a good stick

The Sheep’s Head Peninsula has long been a magnet for people who want to get away from it all, to recharge their batteries and to find inspiration.

Writers, artists, sailors and chefs have all fallen in love with the Peninsula over the years. For example, the novelist Wolf Mankowitz lived in Ahakista, while Booker prize-winning J.G.Farrell lived just a few miles outside Kilcrohane. In fact, he died tragically when he was swept off the rocks by a rogue wave while he was fishing not far from our house.

I mention just some of the interesting people who have made their home on the Sheep’s Head because I discovered that Kilcrohane now has its very own resident world-renowned artist.

Four months ago, Alex Chamberlain was looking for a house in Ireland. He had been to see many properties but nothing felt like home until the day he travelled from Bantry to Kilcrohane via the Goats Path. “We were making our way to Kilcrohane, when suddenly we came across an old house with some out-buildings and land just outside the village. We stopped the car and took a look around. That was it really; I bought the house that afternoon,” Alex told me as we sat in his kitchen surrounded by some of his paintings.

Alex Chamberlain with his painting inspired by a rainy day on Kilcrohane pier

I met Alex by complete accident after I went to buy milk at our local village shop. Alex had been living in Portugal for years where he had a studio. “I have been painting for many years now and I think I wanted something new, a new perspective, and I suppose a new challenge,” Alex said when I asked him why he had decided to live in Kilcrohane.

An Alex Chamberlain piece inspired by the New York City skyline

Having exhibited his paintings around the world, Alex said he was looking for a home with something special. “I couldn’t put my finger on what that something special was but when I arrived in Kilcrohane it just felt right and I still have that feeling today. I found inspiration not only for my painting but for something that I have long held a passion for,” Alex continued.

Indeed, it was this passion that led me to Alex. While I was buying my daily milk, I noticed a rack of beautifully carved walking sticks on display. Each stick had a different carved and hand-painted head. There were Pheasants, Trout, Salmon and a Frog, all hand-craved from bone and horn.

Pheasant, Trout, Salmon and a Frog

“I learned to carve a long time ago. It’s just a hobby really but when I saw that the Sheep’s Head is very popular with walkers I thought I would put a few in the local shop, just to see the reaction really,” Alex said.

Alex uses rams’ horn and antlers, which many of his neighbours kindly donate. “A ram has to be at least five years old before you can use the horn for carving. There are also lots of Blackthorn trees in the area, which are perfect for the base of the sticks. I love using natural material that can be found in the area where I live. It takes a long time to carve but in the end you have a good walking stick that is a little piece of art as well,” Alex enthused.

Ram's horn ready for carving

So, if you ever decide to go walking on the Sheep’s Head, stop off in O’Mahony’s Shop in Kilcrohane. There you will see little works of art by the Peninsula’s latest arrival, Alex Chamberlain.

Hand-carved walking stick by Alex Chamberlain

 

Fishy story

Now that we live on a peninsula you might think that seafood is set to play a very important part in our diet. You would be right, that is the plan, but it’s not that simple.

After the disaster with the seaweed pudding, (I can still taste it) I have decided to concentrate on fish and shellfish when planning to cook with the ‘fruits of the sea’. However, this plan is proving even more difficult to put in place because of my woeful angling skills.

Fishing, yes; catching, no.

We have a very good fishmongers in Bantry, which is just under thirty kilometres away, but I want to catch my own supper at least once before we head into town and take the easy way out.

Indeed, we don’t even have to go as far as Bantry. We have the best lobster, freshest crab and mouth-watering scallops available and all only a phone call away, freshly caught in Dunmanus Bay and landed on the pier in Ahakista, which is just down the road. It really is that easy to enjoy good fish around here but I have decided that I must catch and cook a fish from the Bay before I pick up the phone and make that call.

Lobster and scallop boats at Ahakista Pier

I did set out on such a mission recently but I won’t bore you with the details. Let’s just say it was a good job we had eggs at home.

Last week, I decided to redouble my efforts after I got the chance to interview one of my food heros for a feature commissioned by my former newspaper The Avondhu.

Award-winning chef and owner of the fabulous Fishy Fishy restaurant in Kinsale, Martin Shanahan is no ordinary celebrity cook. This chef is on mission. Another blow-in to West Cork, Martin is working hard to take what he calls ‘the fear out of fish.’

Chef Martin Shanahan is 'Mad about Fish'

“When I was growing up in Fermoy [North Cork, about fifty kilometres from the sea], we always had fish on Fridays, just like most of the country did. The fish was always boiled and served with a white sauce, which is grand but it soon became monotonous and I think a lot of people, well most people really, grew to seriously dislike fish,” Martin told me.

Martin has been working hard to promote fish and wants to see more Irish seafood being served in Irish homes. “Ireland is surrounded by the best fish-producing seas on the planet and we export over ninety percent of our catch. It’s mad. What I want to do is to encourage people to eat more fish, try different species and, above all, support the Irish fishing industry,” Martin said.

However, I wanted to know how a boy from a small town surrounded by some of the best land in Ireland found his way to cooking seafood?

“For me there is something very appealing about cooking with fish. Unlike a red piece of meat, fish is beautiful even in its raw state. After I finished training and working at the Butler Arms Hotel in Waterville for a while, then I moved to San Francisco where I learned more and new ways to cook fish. Looking back on it now, I always seem to have worked by the sea. I get a bit jumpy if I go too far inland,” Martin continued.

Asked what species of fish was his favourite to eat, Martin was quick to name fresh haddock as the fish he couldn’t live without. “There is nothing like fresh fish simply cooked and for me haddock is my favourite,” Martin said.

Fresh haddock ready for sale at the Bantry Farmers' Market.

I left Martin eager to get back to Kilcrohane and my rod; I wondered if he had any advice for a hopeless angler?

“It’s great to catch your own fish but if I were you I’d leave it to the professionals, that way you can concentrate on the cooking,” Martin laughed.

Well, I can’t argue with that. I think it’s time to make that call.

In the meantime, here is one of Martin Shanahan’s best-loved recipes for haddock, which can be found in his Fishy Fishy Cook Book.

Thanks Martin for allowing me to use this recipe on my blog.

Spiced Haddock with couscous and courgettes

Serves 4

4 large fillets of haddock, skinned and boned

4 tablespoons taco seasoning

4 tablespoons plain flour

Salt and pepper

250g couscous

4 tablespoons olive oil

500ml vegetable stock

Pinch of saffron

1 small onion

1 courgette

Crème fraiche

Bunch of coriander

Place the couscous in bowl and add a tablespoon of olive oil.

Toss with a fork to coat the grains with the oil.

Heat the stock with a good pinch of saffron.

Turn the heat down and leave to infuse until the stock takes on the yellow colour of the saffron (10-15 minutes).

Finely dice the onion.

Cut the courgette in four, length-ways, and then slice into 5mm-thick wedges.

Put a pan on the heat and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

Add the onion until it is just beginning to soften, and then add the courgette.

Season quite generously with salt and pepper.

Cook until the courgette is just soft.

Add the vegetable mixture to the bowl of couscous.

Bring the stock back to the boil and pour over the couscous mixture.

Leave for 15 minutes for the grains to swell.

Mix the taco seasoning with the flour, and season.

To cook the fish: coat the haddock in the taco mix, pat to shake off the excess.

Heat a pan and coat the base with vegetable oil. Cook the fish on a high heat for 4 minutes, turn and cook for a further 4 minutes on the other side.

Serve with crème fraiche and chopped coriander.

 

 

Seaweed pudding

Seaweed. We have plenty of that down here. Bladder Wrack, Kelp, Sea Spinach and Carrageen Moss to name just a few that can be found not very far from where I’m sitting right now.

While I am mad for sushi (I miss Dashi) and I know the Japanese swear by it, to me seaweed, when not used to keep rice and raw fish in place so that I can whack some soya sauce and wasabi on it, is a waste of space.

Of course, there are people who will pay big money at health and beauty spas to be washed in the stuff, but that’s not for me thank you very much. Some family members have suggested that I take up seaweed farming as when I go fishing I spend most of my time removing handfuls of the stuff from my hooks and bait. This, however, is an unfair dig at my lack of success at catching anything from some of the most productive waters off the Irish coast. Dunmanus Bay is full of fish, so a man in the pub told me.

“I’ve caught mackerel on nothing but a hook with some silver paper on it,” said the St. Peter of Kilcrohane. Of course, my state-of-the-art carbon fibre rod and computer-designed fishing lures are rubbish… it’s just jealousy on his part, I say. Or he could be right – either way, I’ll continue to go fishing/seaweed harvesting.

Anyway, back to the seaweed and a surprise that awaited me as I opened the fridge and found four teacups sitting on the shelf with what looked like rubber milk inside. That, I was told, is not rubber milk but Carrageen Moss pudding.

Dried Carrageen

Carrageen, like many other types of seaweed, is edible and has been used over the centuries as a natural gelling agent and as a medicine. It’s very easy to use; just simmer some with milk, then sieve, add sugar to taste and whatever other flavour you like – vanilla, orange, lemon, cinnamon, even chocolate or Baileys. Place into moulds and let this set in the fridge. Simple.

Milk, sugar and Carrageen Moss

While the rest of the family got stuck in and devoured their Carrageen pudding with gusto,

Carrageen Moss pudding

I was left with a taste that I can only describe as akin to ingesting freshly-cut hay. I’ll continue to get my seaweed kick from sushi, thank you very much.

Strange but true.

Mushroom roulette anyone?

You may be thinking, ‘How is he living dangerously in West Cork?’ Well, I am about to show you that there is an element of risk (nay, a possible death-inducing scenario) involved with living the dream on the ‘Sheep’s Head’.

While enjoying my daily ‘airing out’, and having read a wonderful piece by the high queen of good things to eat, Darina Allen, about collecting all the food you could possibly need from the hedgerows and forests, I spotted a group of mushrooms under some trees in a field.

Wild mushrooms, tasty or deadly?

I collected the ‘shrooms’ and while they have a strange (some might say radioactive) colour, they look like large open-capped mushrooms that would be perfect for grilling (broiling). The slightly pinkish colour did put me off for a moment but I thought I’d bring them home and do what every modern man does when faced with a possible ‘should I eat it’ dilemma, that is, look it up on the interweb.

All I found were stories of people dying horribly from eating poisonous mushrooms and a very unhelpful piece about not picking mushrooms if you can’t identify them. Too late now. While all this research was going on, I developed a serious craving for mushrooms with garlic butter on toast. Would I, or wouldn’t I? With the possibility of death (or a super, super high) on the cards, is a wild mushroom omelette out of the question?

Edible or not?

Well, let’s say that I eat the mushrooms; while I am sure that I could make a really good meal with them, is it worth the risk? There is a possibility I won’t die and free food is, well, free food. With that in mind, this is what I am proposing to do with the ‘mushys’.

Handful of wild (but deadly?) mushrooms

1 clove of garlic

1 spring onion

Olive oil

Butter

Salt and pepper

Handful of fresh parsley and thyme

Handful of breadcrumbs

I have a few smaller mushrooms as well as the bigger opened-capped ones so first thing is to lightly fry the garlic, spring onion and smaller chopped mushrooms in a pan with the olive oil and a little butter.

With the four bigger mushrooms, I will brush them with a little olive oil and place them on a tray under a grill (broiler) on medium heat for about three minutes on each side.

I will chop the herbs and add them to the breadcrumbs

Then I will fill each of the big mushroom caps with the garlic, spring onion and chopped mushroom mixture, season with salt and pepper before adding the breadcrumb and herb topping.

With some olive oil and a little knob of butter on each filled mushroom, it’s back under the grill for a further two or three minutes until the breadcrumbs have turned golden in colour.

That’s what I would do if I were a gambler, but as was pointed out to me by my loving wife, if I die from eating poisonous mushrooms, what would the neighbours in the village say? She could never show her face on the Peninsula again (apparently) and it seems she’s not willing to leave Kilcrohane no matter what, not for a handful of deadly mushrooms or even a poisoned husband.

Gathering Mushrooms, Anúna

Goat or Sheep, take your pick.

Eighties flashback

The rain hasn’t stopped for two days now. At this moment, as I look out on a wet and wind-swept Kilcrohane, I can see the waves crashing on the rocks in Dunmanus Bay and I feel very isolated. But on this stormy day, I have discovered that even in darkest (and dampest) West Cork you can, on the third Thursday in November, find this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau.

Storm clouds gathering over Bantry Bay

There I was dashing between the lovely stalls at Bantry’s Farmers’ Market when I saw on display bottles of this infamous fruity red wine, which was just being unpacked from their shipping boxes as I ducked into the wonderful Bantry food store The Stuffed Olive. It’s that time of the year again when the marketing machine goes into over-drive and the French pull another fast one – Beaujolais Nouveau. Gamay grapes fermented for just a few weeks before the wine is released to the world with a fanfare and some would say a shameless marketing ploy for a wine that never gets good reviews. One terribly well-known American wine critic said that drinking Beau Nou ( as we wine snobs call it) is like ‘eating cookie dough’. Maybe so, but I love it.

Memories of the late 1980s in Cork city came flooding back (which was appropriate considering the amount of rain falling). Beaujolais Nouveau was very trendy back in the day when my wine consumption consisted of Blue Nun and Mateus Rosé. Then, this was considered a ‘real’ wine because it comes from France and it’s red, just like wine should be.

A bottle of Beau by the fire. How bad!

Any self-respecting wine snob would probably have walked back out into the rain thumbing their nose at what most French people describe as ‘bad wine’ but not me. I remember standing with a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau at the bar in Pomeroy’s circa 1987, Filofax under my arm, trying to look like a Cork version of a Yuppie, while all the time thinking that this wine (that tastes a bit like Ribena) was the best thing since Rick Astley.

So, I bought two bottles of the 2011 vintage George Debouf Beaujolais Nouveau and tonight, as the rain falls and waves pound the Peninsula, I will drink a bottle and remember the 1980s. I have already downloaded ‘Never gonna give you up’. Now all I need is some cheese and pineapple on tooth picks and we are in for the night.

Enjoy the memories.

Never Gonna Give You Up

Eggs, Turf and Beer.

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Kilcrohane on a Sunday night then there is only one place to be.

Eileen’s Bar is one of those pubs that leave you feeling that you have just been wrapped in a lovely warm duvet, that is, a lovely warm duvet with beer.

However, Eileen’s is much more than a village pub; you can also get fresh eggs, jam, potatoes, turf and a locally-produced honey known as ‘Northside Nectar’.

Northside Nectar

Let’s put this in perspective; imagine a scenario where you have invited your in-laws to tea and you decide to bake a cake. However, you have no eggs, the village shop is shut, panic sets in, a major disaster, right? Wrong, you just go up to Eileen’s and you’ll get all the freshly-laid eggs you need, bake a fantastic cake and the in-laws will leave marvelling at your culinary skills. But of course if you have to buy your eggs in a pub it would be rude not to have a drink while you’re there, wouldn’t it? So it’s win-win all round. (Note, don’t bake drunk.)

That’s why Eileen’s is the best pub on the peninsula.

The 'Human Jukebox' Neil Lynch

Last Sunday night, we opened its welcoming red door to find the fire glowing in the hearth, the pints of Guinness lined up on the bar and Neil Lynch ‘the Human Jukebox’ already set up for his gig. Armed with his guitar, Neil soon had the bar rocking to classics that ranged from Christy Moore to the Rolling Stones, from the Dubliners to J.J.Cale.

Neil’s motto is ‘I’ll play anything you like and if I can’t play it tonight, I’ll know it for the next gig’. I asked for the old favourite ‘Black is the Colour’ which he duly did justice to. I wonder if he knows ‘Coffin Fodder’ by Cradle of Filth?

Finbarr Spillane, the best spoons player in the world. (Well, Kilcrohane anyway)

As the evening wore on, the ‘Human Jukebox’ was joined by the best spoons player in the world, or in Kilcrohane anyway, Finbarr Spillane. The duo soon got the dancing underway and as the night rolled on it was easy to see why Eileen’s Bar is so popular.

Before this, I had only experienced Eileen’s during the summer months when walkers from across the globe gather in Kilcrohane as they prepare to enjoy the stunning scenery along the Sheep’s Head Way. Eileen is always ready to welcome the tired walkers with sandwiches and coffee.

Neil Lynch plays ‘The Galway Girl’ in Eileen’s

On summer evenings, sitting on the wall, outside the pub with a drink in your hand, listening to the babbling stream by the village church and watching the swallows darting about as the sun sets in the west, this is what makes Eileen’s and Kilcrohane the jewel in the crown that is West Cork.

Eileen behind the bar.

But now I feel guilty; I don’t miss my local pub back in Cork city. MOK’s on the Bandon Road is one of those ‘real’ pubs that are sadly disappearing. Like Eileen’s, MOK’s is very warm and welcoming, but unlike Eileen’s, the only ‘food’ available in MOK’s is crisps and peanuts, which if you knew MOK’s you would agree is very fitting indeed.

Now that I have a new favourite pub, it’s time to write that letter: ‘Dear MOK’s, sometimes people change, it’s not you it’s me…and Eileen’s has ‘Northside Nectar’.