Rocks and Cheese

The conversation went something like this.

Darling wife: ‘Oh look, there’s a geology walk taking place next Saturday along part of the Sheep’s Head Way. That’ll be very interesting, will I sign us up?’

Yours truly: ‘Er, no!

Darling wife: ‘Come on! It’ll be great! The walk takes in parts of the Way we haven’t seen before, and the geology aspect will be educational.’

Yours truly: ‘No way.’

Darling wife: ‘The walk is along the spine of the Peninsula. You’ll be able to see both Dunmanus and Bantry bays at the same time!’

Yours truly: ‘No.’

Darling wife: ‘There will also be cheese…’

Yours truly: ‘Sorry, did you say cheese? What time does this walk start at?’

And so, with the promise of cheese, I began an adventure, which was not only good for my brain and my body but also included a visit to another of West Cork’s legendary food producers, Jeffa Gill and her world-famous Durrus Cheese.

Now I have to admit that rocks and the formation of the countryside around me have never been high on my agenda. Rocks are, as far as I know, inedible. But I have to admit that Dr Ronan Hennessy of NUI Galwaytransformed what was promising to be at best a long hike with some good scenery thrown in into a leisurely, entertaining, enlightening and very educational two-hour trek.

At the beginning of the geology walk. Eyes firmly on the prize.

Still, the formation and make-up of the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, while interesting, was for me a sideshow. As we climbed along the ridge line of the Peninsula, my thoughts were firmly fixed on the prize at the end of the walk: a plate of Durrus cheese.

The wild flower pastures that go on to produce Durrus Cheese

Jeffa Gill came to Durrus over 30 years ago and began making her raw milk cheese. At the time, this would have been something of a wonder on the Peninsula. Here was someone milking cows and not sending their milk to the creamery…and a woman!

Almost at the top

Now, after all these years, Durrus cheese is known across the world in the best restaurants and in the finest delis. From her small but beautiful cheese-making facility at the end of a long narrow road, Jeffa has made the name Durrus famous; she has brought the world to this corner of West Cork.

While the landscape was spectacular (you could indeed see the waters of both Dunmanus Bay and Bantry Bay), my driving force was all about getting back to the food. As we made our way down the side of the hill towards the farmhouse, my thoughts turned towards creamy cheese and a nice cup of tea. When we arrived, some walkers were tired, some were foot sore and I, as usual, was hungry.

There’s cheese over the next ridge

As we gathered to remove our jackets and waterproofs, I scanned the area looking for the promised cheese. I didn’t have to look for long; there on a table I saw plates of cheese ready for the weary group of geologists/cheese enthusiasts.

It all began with this, Durrus Cheese.

Jeffa was on hand to give us all a taste of her award-winning dairy produce. First off, we tried a slice of the original from 1979, the cheese that set Jeffa on her way to cheese superstardom, the one and only ‘Durrus’. I first had this cheese on a pizza at Good Things Café many years ago and was hooked from then on.

Cheese at last!

Next, we tried ‘Durrus Óg’, a younger and creamier version of the original. Durrus Óg, unlike the original that is matured for anything up to eight weeks, only spends about 10 days in the creamery.

Durrus Óg

To finish, Jeffa produced my new favourate, the semi-hard, nutty, fruity, absolutely delicious ‘Dunmanus’. This cheese is matured for up to three months before it is sold and the complex taste that develops is sublime.

The wonderful Dunmanus.

I left Durrus that afternoon both tired and determined to find more cheese. From now on I am prepared to endure lectures on anything from the need to ensure the proper use of dental floss to the history of sewing once (and this is very important) there is cheese at the end of it.

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Safari in the Bay

It’s amazing what you find if you take time to look about; let me give you an example. For months now, I have been fishing from a certain spot just down the road from the house. I always travel the same path, stopping every now and again to admire the Bay or the flora and fauna as it changes from one season to the next. When I arrive at ‘my spot’, a huge flat rock that slopes gently towards the deep waters of Dunmanus Bay, I get on with the task at hand (chucking a lure out to the waiting fish) and never really pay much attention to the environment around me.

Low tide reveals a hidden treasure trove of life in Dunmanus Bay

This all changed a few days ago. I arrived at the spot to find that the tide was out. Very far out. Where once there were metres of water between where I stood and the dark rocks far below, I could now easily climb down, browse the rock pools and, most importantly, retrieve the lures that I lost over those previous attempts at catching any fish at all from Dunmanus Bay.

The flora on the Peninsula

As I explored the pools in an attempt to get closer to the waterline so that I could start fishing (and yes, I have since learned that when the tide is out it’s the worst time to go fishing), I suddenly discovered, in the crystal-clear water of one of the pools, these purple spiny globes. I had stumbled across a nest of sea urchins.

Just some of the sea urchins in the pool getting ready for love

Believe me, this was not just one or two sea urchins; I counted fifty and then gave up. The pool, which would normally be completely out of sight and out of reach, was full of these prickly creatures and I couldn’t resist reaching out and picking one up.

Sea urchins, spiny but delicious?

Now I know that for many out there sea urchin is a delicacy and we had eaten these at the Ivory Tower in Cork city but I have to admit that I am completely stumped as to how to prepare or deal with these amazing creatures in the kitchen. After a quick search on the interweb and some really good advice from a true food hero (thank you once again Sally McKenna), I discovered that while the sea urchin is not that difficult to prepare the best time to harvest is in September. Right now they have other things on their tiny little minds, hence the army of them in the pool. Apparently, it’s the season of love for sea urchins and a few prickly spines aren’t going to get in the way.

A sea urchin ready for some creative cookery but what’s the next step?

So, from now until September I will be closely guarding the secret location of my sea urchin cache. However, I could do with some recipes and suggestions as to how we should enjoy these delicacies from Dunmanus Bay and would love to hear from anyone who can help.

As I climbed back up the rocks to my spot, I suddenly got the feeling that I was not alone, I looked over my right shoulder to find four pairs of eyes watching me. There, floating not 10 metres from me, four seals bobbed gracefully in the water as they munched on the fish I had come to catch. I found a comfortable rock and sat basking as the seals continued eating their lunch. I was amazed to see the hidden landscape that was now revealed by the receding tide. Rocks with colonies of baby mussels clinging firming to the surface, sea snails, anemones, starfish and, of course, the ever present collection of seaweeds, all laid bare before me. As I sat there, taking all this in, something climbed out of the water and sat on a rock just a couple of metres away. This new arrival was not a seal; the seals had moved on (having, I supposed, wolfed down the underwater buffet). It sat there looking directly at me and then got back into the water and disappeared. An otter!

Empty and sun bleached. Somebody knows how to get the best out of these prickly creatures.

Suddenly there was a splash and there, swimming on its back, the long brown otter was on the surface and this time it wasn’t alone. As it climbed back on to its rock I saw, held firmly in its jaws, a fish, a cuckoo wrasse I think, and the otter set about enjoying its lunch. With all these expert anglers around, I decided to call it a day and headed home, fishless once again, but amazed at the diversity of wildlife both above and below the waters of Dunmanus Bay.

The Caribbean? No, West Cork baby!!!!