A perfect day

I really, really enjoyed the summer of 2012.

Remembering it now, I can feel the tears begin to well up in my eyes. It’s all fine having warm, dry weather but to have warm, dry weather on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula means that you are in fact transported to what many have described as the Riviera of Ireland.

The summer of 2012 and the beginning of a perfect day.

Well, when I say many I mean me; I describe it as the Riviera of Ireland because when the weather is good, and I mean really good, ‘good enough to wear a polo shirt without losing the circulation in your arms’ good, then there is no place like the Sheep’s Head Peninsula.

It all began on Friday morning; somebody somewhere turned up the thermostat, switched on the sun and turned off the cloud machine. Blue skies, temperatures in the mid-twenties (that’s the high-seventies for our American friends – practically a heat-wave for Ireland), warm, blue water in the Bay and the swallows returning en mass from South Africa to their holiday homes along the Peninsula.

As I left the house, there was a blast of warm air, warm air that was coming in from the outside not the other way around – like when the cabin crew open the door of the aircraft upon landing at your sun holiday destination. The birds were singing, there were smiling people everywhere and all was right with the world.

Now, here in Ireland we have learned down through the generations that you have to make the most of the good weather when it arrives. So, if you are ever on this Island and you encounter people who look like they have third-degree burns, this means there must have been good weather in the not so distant past. If indeed you are lucky enough to be here when the weather is good then you will see people (men for the most part) stripped to the waist as they go about their daily business: driving cars, shopping, sitting on buses, drinking in pubs, etc. A simple rule applies – when the sun comes out, take off your shirt. As for sun cream to protect against skin cancer and sunburn, well, that’s just for girls and children. A real man knows that the harmful effects of the sun do not apply to his milky white skin and, anyway, the ladies love it when the Irish male goes topless.

You will be glad to hear that I did not strip off my top to celebrate the good weather. I did however put on my first polo shirt of the season and I got out the ‘legs’. That’s right; I exposed the good people of Kilcrohane to the milky white goodness that is my legs. At first, I feared for the eyesight of my neighbours who would be exposed to their blinding whiteness but I decided to risk it and hope for the best. Now, suitably attired with shorts and a polo shirt (I also removed my vest but decided not to go ‘commando’), I headed out to enjoy the Irish summer.

And enjoy the summer we did. Plans were quickly put in place for a picnic. Armed with marinated chicken, a mushroom and pepper frittata, olives, bread, a really good bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (we also included a flask of tea, after all this was an Irish picnic) and the fishing rods, we headed for a tranquil and beautiful bay just down the road from our house.

An ideal spot for a picnic

After a short walk along the headland, we found our spot overlooking Dunmanus Bay where it joins the Atlantic Ocean. As we sat on our perch, looking at the blue sky, the green patchwork of fields along the Peninsula and the clear water, it was hard to imagine the gale force wind and driving rain that had only a few days ago rushed down the length of the Bay.

We drank our wine and toasted our good fortune to live in such a beautiful place. At this very moment, our day out enjoying the good weather was almost perfect. Just one more element needed to fall into place and then this Saturday could go down in history as ‘a perfect day’.

I had the fishing rods; if only we could return home with sun-kissed skin and a few fresh fish, that would be something to tell the grandchildren about.

Ready for the first cast of the day

I set off armed with my rod and a new lure that cost me the princely sum of €1.50 ($1.89). ‘This,’ the man in the tackle shop said as he held the new lure up to the light, ‘this will have the fish out of the water and on to the rocks quicker than dynamite’. I wasn’t convinced but dynamite is a lot more expensive and harder to come by (typing ‘dynamite for sale’ into Google seemed unwise) so I handed over the €1.50.

My new ‘dynamite’ lure

As I stood on the rocks ready to cast, I could see gannets diving in the distance and a cormorant drying its wings on the rocks. ‘I hope they left some fish for me,’ I thought as I cast the lure out into the Bay. When it hit the water about 36 metres (40 yards) from me, I counted to 10, slowly, to give the lure time to sink. Then, as I began to retrieve the bait (still wondering about the possibility of getting dynamite), the lure suddenly stopped and the rod was almost wrenched from my hand.

At first I thought the lure was caught in rocks or some dense seaweed, a situation I have found myself in many times. However, this was different, my fishing rod was bent over and the tip was moving in all directions. I lifted the rod up; the movement became quicker and stronger. I began to reel in, there was definitely something alive on the other end of the line and after a few minutes (minutes that felt like a lifetime) I got my first glimpse of the fish. A long, silver body attached to the end of my line getting closer by the minute.

How about this for a stunner? And the fish ain’t bad either! Please note the ‘legs’ have been cut from the photo to avoid blindness.

After some mad thrashing on top of the water, I managed to land the pollack on to the rocks. I stood there amazed; not only had I caught a fish, a very big fish, over 3 kilos (7lbs), I did this on my first cast. It seems I don’t need to order the dynamite after all. Three more fish followed in quick succession. I actually arrived home with fish, no excuses about the wrong tides or the wrong water temperature, real fish that I didn’t buy or get as a present. A perfect day at last.

Pollack from Dunmanus Bay

Today as I sit here writing my blog and looking out at the rain lashing against the window, watching the grey sky and the trees swaying in the wind, it all seems like a dream. Ah, the Irish summer of 2012; it was the best 48 hours ever.

Heading for home at the end of summer 2012

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The West Cork effect

West Cork does strange things to perfectly ordinary people. Back when we first moved to the Peninsula, I was told about the ‘West Cork air’ and the effect it has on anyone who spends enough time absorbing all its goodness.

You may think I’m joking but there is something very strange going on down here. I tell you this because it seems that this West Cork effect has taken control. Back in January, as I strolled around the fantastic farmers’ market in Skibbereen, I met the wonderful Sally McKenna. Now, Sally and her husband John produce the Bridgestone Guide, which is the guide to all things good to eat in Ireland, and they have long been my heroes. Indeed, to me they encapsulate my ideal West Cork lifestyle: writing, eating and enjoying the landscape with all that it has to offer.

Happy shoppers at Skibbereen Farmers’ Market

Anyway, Sally had set up a stall at the market in Skibbereen selling cosmetics that she makes from harvesting seaweed along the coastline and when I told her about my West Cork adventure living on the Sheep’s Head for a year she smiled. ‘Oh, you’ll never leave,’ Sally said. ‘West Cork won’t let you; one of these days you’ll have a stall at a farmers’ market. Wait and see.’

I laughed at the idea but Sally is on to something; Firstly, you get the itch to grow your own vegetables (which we do), and then you find you can’t leave the house without your camera (I never do), somehow food tastes better (yes it really does) and everything seems to slow down. For those hardcore individuals who really get stuck-in to the West Cork lifestyle, it’s all about dreadlocks, yoga and making your own clothes. I’m not quite at that stage yet but my wife has crossed the Rubicon, so to speak; well, of course, she was born here so maybe it’s not that strange. As we have learned, one of the main ways you know that West Cork has gotten under your skin is opening your own stall at a farmers’ market.

Even Leo has gone all West Cork

For many, this involves selling their excess veg or the eggs from the chickens they now keep, or homemade cakes, or the ceramics and pottery that they create themselves. However, my wife has come up with a unique product and is now selling it to some very appreciative customers.

Proof of the ‘West Cork effect’. Lamps made from driftwood created by a Frenchman living in Kilcrohane.

Ladies and gentlemen, my wife has unleashed her Carrageen Moss Pudding on the people of West Cork. Regular readers will remember my first encounter with this pudding when I described it as tasting like straw and having the consistency of rubber. Well, it seems that I will never get a job as a food critic because the general public can’t get enough of it.

Carrageen Pudding

Twice my wife and I have gone to the Skibbereen Farmers’ Market, set up the stall, and sold out of the pudding on both occasions. We also set up at the Sheep’s Head Producers’ Market in Kilcrohane and again sold out. When I say ‘we’, my input involves nothing more than helping to set up the stand and offering moral support. Caroline does all the work. She has spent hours perfecting her recipes and trying new flavours. Vanilla, orange and lemon, Irish cream liqueur and carrageen pudding with stewed rhubarb or apple – all have been received with gusto. At the markets, I play my usual role of arm candy for my very successful better half. Well, that’s what I tell myself anyway. In reality, I just stand there, run for refreshments, and then help to load up the car again. While I am damn good at getting the tea, my standing there and the loading of the car is only undertaken with the expert supervision of my wife. I know my limits.

Sheep’s Head Producers’ Market in front of Eileen’s Pub in Kilcrohane

But getting back to the so-called ‘West Cork frame of mind’, now that we have opened a market stall, I would like to inform you all that I will not, repeat not, be attempting to grow dreadlocks or take up yoga. I have, however, embraced my new life in West Cork in my own way. My many suits, for example, are, as I type, gathering dust in the wardrobes and sometimes I can go two (yes, two) days without shaving. However, I fear that my body has now built up an aversion to wearing suits. The last time that I wore one, I ended up on a trolley in Bantry General Hospital. I was waiting to speak to the Minister for Health who was opening a new unit at the hospital when suddenly I found the room spinning. When I opened my eyes, I found that I was hooked up to various machines with doctors and nurses in attendance; all this because I wore a suit after months of casual clothes. But I still got the story and, no, the Minister for Health did not call to see if I was ok.

So, it seems that if you’re not careful, the West Cork lifestyle can in fact damage your health. I may try and wear a suit again one of these days but I’ll have to have at least one doctor standing by first.

Beware of the West Cork air.