A Kilcrohane Christmas

I need a rest: a very long rest. I’m thinking of heading back to the city so that I can relax for a while. You see, my first Christmas in Kilcrohane, in fact my first Christmas outside Cork city, has been just one long list of activities, events and places to go. My usual Christmas routine of sofa, T.V. and food is but a distant memory.

In preparation for my first festive season in rural Ireland, I travelled up to the city last week to get what I call my ‘urban fix’ before I relaxed into the warm blanket of a very special Kilcrohane Christmas. Or so I thought.

I immersed myself in all my favourite places, fearful that they might have changed since I moved to the Peninsula. But no, everything was as I had left it. The Mutton Lane Inn was still warm and welcoming, the English Market was packed with people collecting their turkeys, hams and, of course, the world-famous spiced beef. As I walked along Oliver Plunkett Street, soaking in the atmosphere, I found myself wondering if I would make it back to the Sheep’s Head for the Christmas carol service later that evening or whether there would be a big turnout for the Christmas Day swims in Dunmanus Bay or which of the two St. Stephen’s Day guided walks along the Sheep’s Head Way I would be up for. I suddenly found the city of my birth, the city I love so well, claustrophobic; it was time to head home to the Peninsula.

I made it back to the village in time for the carol service; both the parish priest and the local Church of Ireland clergy gathered with the children of the community and their families at the village church. The festive carols and the candle-lit church soon had all those present singing along, and as one man said when the service ended: ‘Now Christmas can begin’. When we all gathered at the back of the church for mulled wine, mince pies and hot chocolate, it was then that I realised that this wasn’t going to be a traditional Christmas as I have known it back in the city.

Christmas Eve at Eileen's

On Christmas Eve, the only place to be was in Eileen’s pub where friends and family members gathered to listen to the music and to prepare for the celebrations that were about to begin.

Alex and Kenny in Eileen's on Christmas Eve

Click to hear live music from Eileen’s pub

Firstly, let me just start by saying that we (and I mean me, especially) never considered taking a dip in ice-cold water on Christmas Day to be a very, shall we say, sensible, let alone festive, thing to do. But, it appears that the people of the Peninsula like nothing better than to strip off and plunge into Dunmanus Bay before they sit down to their Christmas dinners. And, in case you are wondering, no, I didn’t take part in this madness. Charity fundraisers or not, I haven’t taken a dip off the coast of Ireland in over 25 years and I don’t intend starting now.

The Christmas Day swim in Ahakista

As I stood on the piers of Kilcrohane and Ahakista, wrapped in my coat, scarf, hat and gloves, I could only marvel at the men, women and children who bravely jumped, walked and ran into the sea. In fact, most of them didn’t even wrap themselves in towels when they came out of the water after their swim. They all stood around in their swimming trunks, drinking whiskeys and hot chocolate as if they were at a beach party in Barbados. I know this has been a very mild Christmas but come on. I, on the other hand, legged it back to the car as it was raining and I didn’t want to get the camera wet; otherwise I would have stayed, obviously.

Hardy men in Kilcrohane on Christmas morning

As we settled down to our Christmas dinner, my thoughts turned to a lovely fire, a box of chocolates and a glass of something smooth and warming while the next activity for the following day was already being discussed.

You all know about the Sheep’s Head Way by now and at 12 noon on December 26, two guided walks along sections of ‘the Way’ were planned. The first walk would take three hours, the second, an hour and a half; can you guess which one I picked? So, there we were, the wind picking up, rain on its way, about to head off into the wilds of the Peninsula. Both groups set off together, one lot headed for a mountain while we headed for a stone circle and what was promised to be a much ‘easier’ walk.

The Ahakista stone circle at the beginning of the 'easy' route

Negotiating a muddy obstacle on our way over the 'mountain'

James O’Mahony, one of the people responsible for developing the Sheep’s Head Way for walkers was on hand to see us off. John and Sally McKenna from the Bridgestone Guides said hello as they left on the three-hour walk and for a second (just a second) I thought maybe we should have gone for that one. However, about 15 minutes into the ‘easy’ walk, I was thinking that the rescue helicopter I was about to call had better get here fast. Don’t get me wrong, for anyone whose idea of exercise is anything other than going to put more coal on the fire, the ‘stroll’ as one walker put it, would be no problem. Indeed, the kids who went skipping by me as I climbed this one section of mountain (for mountain, my wife suggests you insert the words ‘slight rise’) didn’t seem at all shocked at the man in the strange hat who was about to cough up a lung. As we came down the other side of the mountain (slight rise), one of our guides pointed out the local attraction known as the ‘hole in the road’. There in the middle of the road was indeed a hole, about the size of a tennis ball.

The 'hole in the road'

Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘If you’ve seen one pothole, you’ve seen them all’, but this isn’t a pothole. When you look into the hole, you can see movement. It appears that under the road runs a stream and a local past-time is to drop flowers into the hole in the road and then marvel at their reappearance as the stream emerges further down towards Ahakista.

In our group, I was glad to see some seasoned ‘walkers’. David and Elizabeth Ross from West Cork Walking have been on all the routes on the Sheep’s Head and soon had me forgetting about my aches and pains. David and Elizabeth arrange guided walking tours across West Cork from their farm near Drimoleague.

Finally, we made it back to Arundel’s bar in Ahakista for more mulled wine and sandwiches, where two children who were collecting for the ‘Wren’, an Irish tradition on St. Stephen’s day, entertained us. While I am not ruling out following the Sheep’s Head Way (my wife wants to complete the entire route), I may have to increase the distance from the sofa to the coal bucket to the fire before I head for that mountain once again.

Merry Christmas from Kilcrohane.

Christmas in Kilcrohane

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The Jam Lady

Jealousy, we’re told, is one of the seven deadly sins. Now, if that’s the case, and you believe in sins, be they deadly or just a bit uncomfortable, I stand guilty as charged m’Lord.

In fact, I am so green with envy that the wicked Witch of the West looks positively healthy in comparison. What, you may ask, has brought about this sorry state of affairs? Well, this week I went to talk to Maureen, Kylyra and Dave from Caher Kitchens out west along the Peninsula (as we locals say) and I came away feeling very inadequate.

Maureen Hill and her partner Dave Burden moved to the Sheep’s Head back in 1991. They completely rebuilt, (brick by brick, just the two of them) an old school house and began planting fruits and vegetables on the land surrounding their beautiful home. ‘When we left Poole in Dorset, it felt like we were guided here to the Peninsula. After working for 14 months to get the house ready to live in [the couple lived in a small caravan on the site while they worked on their home] we started planting the fruit and veg and it has just grown and grown from there, if you pardon the pun,’ Maureen told me in her cosy kitchen as we watched another hail shower blow in from the bay.

Maureen and Dave in their polytunnel

‘With the excess fruit we produced, I started making jams which I sold at the local pub. I soon became known as the ‘Jam Lady’,’ Maureen said. Dave constructed their first polytunnel and they continued to produce blackberries, strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and lots of other fresh fruits and veg, which they turned into jams, preserves and pickles.

Then, in 2009, another person joined forces with Maureen and Dave to form Caher Kitchens. Kylyra Ameringer arrived on the Sheep’s Head 12 years ago. ‘When the Kilcrohane Producers Market began last summer, I decided to try and sell some of my products and it was here that I teamed up with Maureen and Dave,’ Kylyra said.

Kylyra bakes wonderful pies and cookies, which are produced without gluten making them perfect for those with a wheat intolerance or Coeliac disease. ‘We decided to join forces and now we produce healthy, tasty food that is produced from our own raw materials grown here on the Peninsula,’ Kylyra continued.

Kylyra getting another batch of jam ready as night falls over Dunmanus bay

By the way, as if all the work at Caher Kitchens wasn’t enough, Kylyra also writes music and poetry and she has produced two CDs of her work.

Maureen decided that she wanted to have their produce available all the time and not just once a week at the Kilcrohane Producers Market. ‘I always wanted to set up a stall at the end of our road, an ‘Honesty Stand’ where people could come and get our jams, cookies, cakes and preserves, so that’s what we did and it has been a great success,’ Maureen enthused.

Dave, an ex-engineer, was called on to build the honesty stand that is now situated at Caher Cross, a lovely spot on the road with views out over Dunmanus Bay.

The fruit press designed and built by Dave

The range of wonderful food from Caher Kitchens continues to grow with Kylyra experimenting with some of the remains left-over when Maureen makes her jams. ‘With the left-over pulps, like blackberry or tayberry, we began infusing these with vinegars and now we found that this makes a fantastic addition for salad dressing,’ Kylyra said.

Maureen and Dave took me on tour of their garden, which is also home to four newly-arrived geese.

Not 'oven ready' but still...yum yum!

Every available space is used to grow wonderful fresh produce. Along with the polytunnel, Dave constructed greenhouses, an irrigation system and, of course, his workshop, which contains all the tools he needs. ‘We haven’t bought vegetables in over ten years and we get our meat from the farmer next door, so in terms of food we are almost self-sufficient,’ Dave told me, as the geese began to honk and hiss when I attempted to take their photo.

These 'pets' are not for eating

With my trial-by-pheasant still fresh in my memory, I asked if one of the geese might be on the menu for Christmas Day? ‘No way,’ Maureen quickly said. ‘They’re just pets, that’s all, there will be nobody having one of our lovelies for Christmas dinner,’ Maureen concluded as I left their white-washed cottage armed with the heaviest cabbage I have ever held and a selection of pickles from the honesty stand. Maureen also gave me a recipe for her famous Tomato Chutney, which is listed below. One really can’t help these jealous feelings. This is indeed the ‘Good Life’.

Browsing the honesty stand for some winter goodies

To order directly, email caherkitchens@gmail.com.

Maureen’s Tomato Chutney

  • 3lbs tomatoes (skinned, however this is optional)
  • 6ozs apples
  • 6ozs onions
  • 6ozs sultanas
  • 6ozs demerara sugar
  • 1oz mustard seeds
  • ½ oz salt
  • ½ level teaspoon pepper
  • ½ level teaspoon mixed spice
  • ¾ pint malt vinegar
  • 3 cloves of garlic

Firstly, chop the tomatoes, apples, onions and garlic.

In a pan, bring the sugar, vinegar and sultanas to the boil for two minutes; then, simply add the remainder of the ingredients.

Simmer very slowly until the chutney has reduced in quantity and thickened.

Finally, pour into warm jars (washed jam jars or any container with an airtight lid will do).

Red pepper relish, cranberry and orange sauce and cucumber pickle

A bird in the hand

I had this image of rural living. There I would be, tweeds, Hunter wellies, a springer spaniel to roam the fields with, flushing pheasant and woodcock that I would efficiently dispatch with my trusty side-by-side, 12-bore shotgun. Then it would be back home to a nice whiskey, my slippers, an open fire and the smell of roasting game wafting from the kitchen.

You get the picture, all very civilised, gentile and clean. Unfortunately, my dreams of this rural idyll have been shattered by the reality of getting up-close and personal with my first brace of pheasant.

But, let’s back up a bit so that I can explain exactly what happened. Since coming to live on the Peninsula, I have seen lots of pheasants in the fields, on the roads and we even managed to flush a few while we were out for our walks. One morning, I received a text message from a neighbour that read ‘there’s a pheasant in your garden.’ I rushed out (in my slippers) and sure enough there was a plump cock pheasant just taking wing and heading over the ditch. Now, I don’t have a gun but I thought that there must be someone in the area shooting these birds. So, I did what any Irishman would do when faced with a dilemma and asked about the pheasants in the one place I knew I would get the right answer, the pub.

Sure enough, ‘there are one or two ‘lads’ shooting in the area,’ I was informed and Eileen, our wonderful pub landlady, would let them know I was looking for pheasant.

I forgot all about this until a week ago. We had just returned from the Bantry Farmers’ Market and, as we were unloading the car, a man arrived with a gun. At first I thought ‘it’s a bit early for the villagers to be turning up with guns; I’ve only been here a month and I don’t think I have written anything that controversial for the local newspaper…yet.’

I smiled nervously. ‘I have something for you,’ the man with the gun said as he opened the trunk of his car. To my surprise and delight, he handed me two beautiful cock pheasants, freshly shot and still warm. Holding the birds, I marvelled at their plumage; I began to think about how I would cook them and, more importantly, what we would drink with them.

My first brace of pheasant

Then I realised that these lovely birds were not ‘oven ready’ and would need some work before I could think about cooking them.

I knew the convention is for the pheasants to be ‘hung’ by their necks in a cool place for a minimum of two days. This gives the gamey taste time to, shall we say, mature. I have read accounts of birds being hung until the body separates from the neck (up to two weeks) but that was just a step too far for me, so we hung the birds in my daughter’s bathroom and opened the window. So far, so good.

Next, I needed advice on how to prepare the birds for the oven. As a twenty-first century man, I knew that there was one place that would answer all my questions and show me how to go about preparing the pheasants in a step-by-step way. Thank God for YouTube.

After a quick search, I found a video of a chef preparing a pheasant by skinning it. I watched the video and it all looked very easy and relatively clean and quick. But then I remembered that we had friends coming to visit who not only would appreciate the pheasants but would know how to prepare and cook the lovely birds as well.

Harro and Gisi have been living on the Peninsula since 1995 after moving from Hamburg in Germany. They have their own chickens and ducks and are used to preparing these for the table. I asked for their help and offered them one of the pheasants in return.

Harro with the 'birds' ready for plunkin'

It was then that I should have seen the dark clouds gathering. As Gisi enthused about the lovely birds, how easy it would be to prepare them and how good they would taste, I noticed Harro standing in the background shaking his head. I should have asked him why.

It was decided that we would let the birds hang until Tuesday (it was now Sunday and the pheasants were on their second day in the bathroom) then I would bring them to Harro and Gisi’s house where we would pluck and dress the pheasants. On Monday, we got a call, ‘could you hold off until Thursday and bring the birds then?’ Harro asked. ‘Oh, and wear old clothes,’ Harro said as he put down the phone. Still, no alarms going off in my head.

When we arrived on Thursday morning, the pheasants had been hanging for almost a week. Now, Gisi had never heard of skinning a pheasant so plucking was the order of the day as we made our way to the greenhouse. Harro arrived with a bucket of hot water, said ‘Mein Gott’ and disappeared into the kitchen.

Yours truly in the greenhouse ready to get started. Note the lovely apron

The pluckin' gets underway

We immersed the pheasants in the hot water and set about plucking the birds. At first, I was feeling positive about the procedure. The feathers were coming off very nicely and I was keeping the skin intact, which according to Gisi is important. ‘This is great,’ I thought to myself, ‘normally I remove the wrapper from my food and stick it in the oven; now, here I am plucking and preparing food that roamed wild on the Peninsula. I feel like such a “real man”.’

However, this didn’t last long. Firstly, there was this strange smell. I noticed that as I removed the feathers from the ‘ass’ of the bird there was what I can only describe as a green, gooey lump about the size of a golf ball, which was beginning to ooze out between my fingers. I continued to pluck. The smell got stronger. Gisi, who was plucking the other bird, was chatting away about the herbs and the sauce she was going to make, when suddenly the greenhouse began to spin.

Turning green. Oh, the smell

I had to get out, but what was I to do with the pheasant and oozing green stuff? I will tell you what happened next to the best of my ability. I stood up. ‘Are you alright?’ my wife asked. ‘I just need some air,’ I said as I bolted towards the door. The smell seemed to be everywhere, I couldn’t catch my breath, what would I do? Walk around, walk around. It’s raining! It doesn’t matter, deep breaths, don’t get sick, for God’s sake, don’t get sick all over the lovely garden!

The women take over

It was then I saw Harro standing at the kitchen window with a knowing look. He took me in to the house and gave me water. ‘Will you have some schnapps? I can never stand it when Gisi wants to prepare a bird. You are lucky; Gisi makes me cut the heads off the ducks and chickens. I always have a whiskey first,’ Harro said as I sat down by the fire. ‘We will leave the women at it; they can handle it better than we can,’ Harro said as he opened a bottle of sparkling wine.

As I sipped my sparkling wine, my wife and Gisi arrived back with the prepared pheasants.

A well-deserved drink. Thank God for the women

I have decided to adjust my image of life in rural Ireland. I will happily wear the tweeds, walk the dog and look at birds in the fields. But, the next time I decide to eat game, someone else can deal with the green ooze and that terrible smell. It’s oven ready or nothing for me from now on.

Our pheasant ready for the oven