Bye bye dream job

Well, the votes are in, the foodies of Ireland have spoken, and I woke this morning NOT the new Food & Wine restaurant critic.

To say that I am disappointed is an understatement but this disappointment will not last. Contrary to reports, I have not taken to the bed or the bottle (although, now that I think about it, a nice glass of whiskey might help get over the rejection a bit faster).

Firstly, I want to congratulate the winner, Rachael Kealy. I look forward to reading your first review. Then, to all the people who voted for me and supported me, thank you very, very much.

I have decided to put it all behind me and continue eating, drinking and writing. If I can’t make it as a restaurant critic, I shall concentrate on winning a Nobel Prize for Literature or Angling, or both. I mean, after making it to the top five Food & Wine finalists, how hard can it be?

Oh, I’ve also asked the good people at Food & Wine to provide me with a list of all the people who voted for me. I shall spend the next few weeks seeing exactly who among my ‘friends’ deserve a mention in my memoirs. If, for some compelling reason, one of you could not vote for me (the death of a loved one, dog ate your copy of Food & Wine/computer/ both hands or you lost the ability to communicate), please don’t worry. I am not one to hold a grudge. I don’t own a gun. And I won’t make you feel bad the next time we meet. If, however, you fail to receive an invite to Kilcrohane over Christmas, find yourself blocked on Facebook, if I seem to cross the road/try and run you over every time we meet, please know now that it’s not personal.

So, that’s that then. The dream job has slipped away once more. Thanks once again for all your support and good wishes. I am truly delighted to have been chosen as one of the finalists.

Now it’s back to life on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, cooking, eating, writing, fishing and enjoying every minute of life on the shores of Dunmanus Bay.

An artist disguised as a postman

Let it be said plainly and simply so that future historians are left in no doubt. The summer of 2012, my first summer on the Peninsula, was a complete washout.

It rained, and rained, and then when the sun came out from behind the rain clouds for what seemed like a full ten minutes, it rained again.

Don’t get me wrong; I have no regrets. My summer was filled with other delights, one of which, once again, proved that the people on the Peninsula are, without a doubt, a very creative bunch. Growing up, we’re told never to judge a book by its cover because you never know what’s inside. Well, our postman, here in Kilcrohane is leading a double life.

You know, of course, of our resident world-renowned artist, Alex Chamberlain who lives just outside the village. Back in November 2011 (wow, it’s almost a year since we first came to Kilcrohane) as I was getting to know Alex, he mentioned that our postman Danny Smith loves to paint.

Danny Smith at his very first art show in Kilcrohane

While opening the door to Danny most mornings as he delivers our mail, I never considered that under the polyester gunmetal grey uniform there beats the heart of a true artist. ‘I want Danny to show his work,’ Alex had said to me back in November. I said that I would love to help, promotion wise, and perhaps I could write a piece for the newspaper.

The months rolled on and, as Danny delivered the mail, I found myself wondering if we would ever get to see his work. ‘Danny is very shy about his work; I have been encouraging him to have a show, he needs to let the world see what he has done and how talented he is,’ Alex continued. High praise indeed, now I really wanted to see what our artist postman could do.

Alex Chamberlain and Danny Smith

In Kilcrohane, there are two pubs, a guesthouse, a village shop/post office and a restaurant/wine bar called the Grain Store. Only opened for two months of the year, the Grain Store is within walking distance of our house and serves some of the best food and wine on the Peninsula. There will be more about the Grain Store and the wonderful Marie in another blog. It was here, at the Grain Store, that Danny would show his work to the people of the Sheep’s Head.

As Danny stood at the door of the Grain Store, no longer dressed in his polyester uniform, he looked every inch the artist. There was a large crowd already viewing his work when we arrived and, after a quick hello and a word of congratulations, we joined the queue that was filing slowing around the room.

Enjoying the art at the Grain Store in Kilcrohane

Pablo Picasso once said, ‘The purpose of art is to wash the dust of daily lives off our souls’. Well, as I took in the paintings hanging on the walls of the Grain Store on that July evening, all thoughts of bad weather, cold breezes, and never-ending rain were quickly forgotten. My soul was now dust free, thanks to Danny Smith.

One of the locals that supplied inspiration for Danny

I’m not an art critic but I know what I like and for me Danny’s work hits all the right notes on my visual keyboard. Big bold brush strokes, lots of colour and light, Danny’s work draws you in until you see not just the subject of the painting but also movement and light. I don’t like watercolours. For me a painting should have texture and depth. I know you’re not suppose to but I love paintings that say, ‘go on touch me, feel the contours of the paint on the canvas’. I love the almost 3D effect of heavy oils and acrylics. Danny’s work makes you want to touch it, the use of colour and light almost inviting you to get closer, and the closer you get the more alive the painting seems.

I know that there are people reading this who are aghast at my troglodyte efforts at describing Danny’s work but it really is that good.

Since Danny’s first showcase at the Grain Store in Kilcrohane, I am confident that there will be more in the future and not just on the Sheep’s Head, I find myself wondering just what other talents are the people of the Peninsula hiding?

The locals and visitors arrive at the Grain Store to see just what our postman artist can do

I think it’s time to explore not only the food, landscape and angling prospects that the Peninsula has to offer. It’s time to highlight the wonderful community that is so vibrant, creative and thriving on the Sheep’s Head peninsula.

This is the village on a wonderful summers day. Blue sky and warm breezes

The world’s most critical job

Aside

Right, before I continue with this blog entry we need to get a few things straight from the start.

I realise that it has been three months since my last blog (crikey, this sounds a lot like being in confession) and this entry has nothing whatsoever to do with the Sheep’s Head or life in West Cork but I have a favour to ask.

Let me begin by promising a series of up-coming blogs filled with pirates, Atlantic Challenges, food fairs, book launches, an artist postman, Graham Norton and lots more. The summer has been very busy.

All this with photos and video too, but first let me explain why I need your help.

As you are no doubt aware by now, I love food. I haven’t been a journalist very long and over the years I have interviewed presidents, politicians, pop stars as well as some of the best chefs in Ireland and the UK; but of all these achievements, I rate two feature articles for a certain food magazine as the highlight of my scribbling career.

That magazine is Food & Wine Ireland and now they are looking for a new restaurant critic.Image

In true reality TV style, the publishers decided to make a competition out of the search and asked all those interested to write 150 words on their favourite food experience.

So, I sent in my entry and earlier this week I found out that I have been chosen as one of the five finalists. It’s like XFactor, only much more important.Image

Anyway, it is up to the public to decide and vote for Ireland’s next restaurant critic and here’s where you come in.

I have attached the piece I wrote for the competition and, if you like it, you can log on to www.harmonia.ie/critic/ and perhaps vote for me?

Delicious Memory

By Brian Moore

The last warm rays of the sun are on my face as I set about preparing the catch.

Mackerel from the bay, tiger striped in turquoise and blue, stiff with freshness, ready for the knife. The driftwood crackles and the skillet is warming nicely. But first a strip of mackerel dipped in light soy touched with wasabi, and swallowed with delight. That fresh, salty, oily tang followed by the fiery punch. Sublime.

Sliced onions are softened on the skillet, now the fresh fish, added with a few home-grown leaves of sage. The orange glow on the horizon calls for a beer, the fish is almost ready. A lucky few gather with plates at the ready, just one more moment. A splash of white wine vinegar sends a delicious cloud into the air.

I sit on a rock, curling my toes into the sand with every bite.

Isn’t food great?

 

Let’s put it this way: I live in West Cork, I love food, I love to cook, I love to write, please help make my dream job a reality and I guarantee* I will take you all out for dinner should I get the job.

*Not a guarantee.

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.

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!!!!

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

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.