A masterclass in smuggling

Oh, how I long for those quiet days of yore.

Back when I was just an everyday hack making his way in the world of news stories and features. Back when all I had to worry about were disgruntled politicians, annoyed parish priests, vengeful pork barons or the many, many chairpersons of local committees who didn’t like what I dared to write (or more to the point, who felt I hadn’t given them enough of a high profile in some piece I had published).

Ah yes, those were the days.

I was able to walk the streets (at night) mostly unmolested, stand relatively unknown in the bus queue, and have a quiet drink in my local pub. Alas, it seems these days are over.

I blame the Sheep’s Head Peninsula. All I had to do was settle in, enjoy the scenery, the food, the community, the weather (well, not the weather so much) and keep my mouth shut. But what did I do? I told the world about Kilcrohane, Ahakista, Durrus and Dunmanus Bay, not once but over and over and over again.

The Sheep's Head awaits

The Sheep’s Head awaits

I suppose it had to happen – looking back on it now it was only a matter of time. You see while I know that the blog has followers right across the globe, I never thought my ‘fans’ would come visiting.

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A spring day on the peninsula.

And that’s just what happened a few weeks ago. There I was, minding my own business, settling into the new house in Durrus, getting used to my new office, when my sister-in-law arrives from Pennsylvania. Now, her visit was not unexpected, Marian runs a tour company called ‘Yanks Guide Ireland’ and we knew that she was bringing a group over to spend a week experiencing what Ireland has to offer.

One of the locals ready to greet the yanks

One of the locals ready to greet the yanks

What was unexpected was that the tour consisted of fans of the blog who were very eager to visit the Sheep’s Head and experience all the wonders I should have kept to myself and…they wanted to meet me as well.

So, for a couple of days my wife and I were treated like celebrities. Caroline cooked some Irish soda bread and some of her carrageen moss pudding and I was quizzed about places and subjects I had written about in the blog. It was all very flattering.

Carrageen Pudding

Carrageen Pudding

Although Dunmanus Bay, Eileen’s Pub, and Kilcrohane were all on the must-see list, food and especially food from the peninsula was, I was delighted to hear, high on the agenda for the Yanks who were now eating their own Sheep’s Head.

Of course, Good Things Café was top of the list but first a trip to meet Jeffa Gill at Durrus Cheese was called for. While there, the visitors, after tasting the wonderful cheese, decided to buy some to enjoy back in Pennsylvania.

More about the plan to bring back artisan farmhouse cheese to America later but for now our visitors were relaxing into all that the peninsula has to offer. After a tour of Durrus Cheese, it was time for the group to head for Kilcrohane and Eileen’s pub.

Eileen behind the bar waiting for the yanks

Eileen behind the bar waiting for the yanks

Now, I wasn’t on hand to witness what happened next but like all good reporters I have my local ‘sources’ who let me know exactly what occurred in Eileen’s.

Eileen’s was as always very warm and inviting, the fire was crackling nicely, one or two locals were sitting at the bar enjoying a mid-afternoon drink when the yanks walked in.

After the usual welcome, the drinks were served and the yanks relaxed and enjoyed the unique atmosphere of an Irish rural pub. Then, according to my reliable source, our visitors were called on to sing a song. A common enough occurrence in an Irish pub you might think. And you would be right.

However, it transpires that our guests’ choice of song left the locals a little bewildered. While the standard song choices on occasions such as this include lyrics of love and loss, hardship and revolution, famine and emigration, our American visitors decided that a round of ‘Row, row, row your boat’ was just what was needed.

I believe ‘Row, row, row your boat’ has become a hit in Kilcrohane since.

After the musical interlude in Eileen’s, it appears that a trip to Ahakista to sample some wine was in order. I suppose singing can make ones throat very dry.  It was in Ahakista that the yanks met the wonderful Harro and Gisi. That is Harro and the fearless Gisi of the pheasant plucking event that left yours truly rather green about the gills.

Enjoying some wine with Harro and Gisi

Enjoying some wine with Harro and Gisi

This time, it was not pheasants but wine that was on offer and after tasting one or two (or three) of the delicious wines in Harro’s wine shop the yanks returned to Durrus heavy with wheels of cheese and clinking with bottles of wine.

With the cheese and wine safely deposited at the accommodation, it was on to Good Things Café where Carmel had prepared a fantastic Friday night supper of blue cheese and roast pear, a choice of roast duck or a growers’ plate with local asparagus and, for dessert, a prune clafoutis.

Good things to eat at Good Things Café

Good things to eat at Good Things Café

After all that good food, wine and convivial company, it was time to say goodbye to our American friends who were off to Dublin to soak up the atmosphere in the capital city before boarding the plane and heading back home to Pennsylvania.

I know what you’re thinking, what happened to the cheese and wine? Did the yanks eat it all before they left the peninsula? Did they drink the wine before heading for Dublin? Surely they didn’t attempt to carry the cheese, Durrus Cheese, back to the USA in their luggage?

Well, this reporter can now confirm that the Durrus Cheese, and we are not talking about a small amount here, made it back to the USA without incident thanks to a lot of luck and an old smuggling trick.

Let me explain. For those of you yet to try Durrus Cheese (and you should), let me start by saying that for taste you’ll not find a better example of Irish artisan cheese on this small, wet island. However, like all good handmade cheese, Durrus has a very, shall we say, distinctive aroma. A small amount wrapped well would be no problem to transport in an airtight container, placed in a bag, tied well and then placed in another airtight container.

But in this case we are talking about a large wheel of Dunmanus, a raw-milk semi-hard cheese, a couple of small Durrus Ógs, and a few wheels of the original Durrus Cheese. All of this travelling thousands of miles in luggage, not under refrigeration, through airport security?

Some of the contraband, sorry cheese to be smuggled, sorry transported home

Some of the contraband, sorry cheese to be smuggled, sorry transported home

Good luck with that I thought, I could hear the latex gloves snapping already.

Now if you love your cheese, like these yanks certainly do, you wouldn’t allow a small thing like a smell that could, given enough time and expertise, be weaponized, stop you from getting through a heavily guarded airport.

So the wrapping of the cheese began. First in plastic bags, sealed tightly. So far so good. Then wrapped in another plastic, again sealed tightly.

I know what you’re thinking: a hot, cheap hotel room in Bogotá, a bare light bulb above the bed on which is arranged packages wrapped tightly, all awaiting the arrival of some poor unsuspecting ‘mule’ to smuggle the illegal contraband out of the country.

It was by all accounts, so my well-placed source tells me, very similar, apart from the bare light bulb and the fact that there is no way the yanks could swallow a wheel of Durrus Cheese.

So another method was devised. And if you ask me, somebody knew far too much about smuggling contraband for the next part of the plan to be just a lucky ‘hunch’.

With the cheese now wrapped in plastic, it was then put into another bigger bag that had a large amount of coffee and, get this, charcoal powder loosely sprinkled inside it. This bag was then sealed and the packages placed evenly throughout everybody’s luggage.

The smugglers meeting in Good Things Café. Marian Joyce, Jerry Greiner, Pat Joyce Tuszl, Caroline Crowley, Martin Murphy, Susan Shearer, Susan Lithgoe and George Lithgoe

The smugglers meeting in Good Things Café.
Marian Joyce, George Lithgoe, Pat Joyce Tuszl, Caroline Crowley, Martin Murphy, Susan Lithgoe, Susan Shearer and Jerry Greiner

I watched the international news feed with a sense of fear and excitement.

I imagined the headlines on Fox News ‘A group of Americans returning from Europe have been caught attempting to smuggle a large amount of a yet unknown substance into New York. Experts at the FBI bio-terrorism section have advised residents in the area to stay indoors and close all their windows’.

So we waited and then after some time with no mention of a huge smuggling ring apprehended at JFK, I assumed that the dastardly plan had worked.

It had, and very well too it seems. There were no calls to the FBI, CIA, NSA or the White House. No citywide evacuation, no strip searches, no latex gloves, nothing.

It seems the old smuggling trick really worked. I wonder where they picked that up – the TV I suppose…

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.

Bush Wars

I have a question for you. Where can you get a good feed of bacon and cabbage at 11pm on a dark St. Patrick’s Weekend night?

Why in Kilcrohane on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, that’s where. I kid you not; just when you might be thinking of calling it a night after a day ‘wetting the Shamrock’ (as I once overheard an American tourist say), there at the end of the bar in the Bay View Inn you will find steaming plates of Ireland’s national dish waiting free of charge.

But more about this later. First, let me tell you about one of the best restaurants in Ireland, a restaurant that serves only the freshest, seasonal, locally-sourced food this part of West Cork can provide, a restaurant that is guided by Carmel Somers, a woman possessed with a passion and skill few Michelin-starred chefs can outshine. All this and on the Sheep’s Head as well. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Good Things Café.

Good Things Café, Durrus

West Cork Food Hero Carmel Somers gathering fresh herbs at Good Things Café

Now, before you think I am over-selling or gushing too much about what, in my humble view, is a restaurant with few equals on this Island, let me assure you that I am not doing the experience of eating at Good Things justice with what follows. I’ve eaten at three-starred Michelin restaurants in Paris and London but for me nothing compares with an evening spent at Good Things Café, sipping some wine, eating great food (try the Ahakista lobster) and watching the sun set over Dunmanus Bay.

Over the years, August was the traditional time for our Good Things pilgrimage. Travelling from the city for the annual Ahakista Regatta, I have to admit that I am always more interested in what’s on the menu at Good Things than watching the boats race in Dunmanus Bay. My first trip to the Peninsula, all those years ago, shocked me. It was an unusually hot August, the Sheep’s Head in all its glory looked like a green slice of the Mediterranean, the temperature was in the high twenties (that’s the high seventies for our friends in the USA – a heatwave by Irish standards), the sky was cloudless and the water in the Bay was crystal clear and so calm that it looked like someone had placed a huge mirror between the peninsulas. Sun, warm sea, birds singing and Good Things Café. This is what my then girlfriend introduced me to when she said ‘Come and meet my family in Durrus’. One look at the place and I decided to marry her. It took me a couple of more years to break down her defences but finally, and if you will forgive the angling reference, I landed my West Cork flower. So you see, Good Things has a very special place in my heart. For me, the restaurant encapsulates everything that this part of Ireland is all about, scenery, fresh local food and good company.

Our latest edible adventure at Good Things saw us dining on nettle soup, fresh prawns and scallops landed earlier that morning from Dunmanus Bay, wonderful salad leaves from Gubbeen Farm just down the road in Schull and brown sugar meringues with rhubarb. An excellent way to spend Mother’s Day.

Fresh Dunmanus Bay prawns at Good Things

Scallops from Dunmanus Bay

Brown sugar meringues with West Cork rhubarb

Meanwhile, back in Kilcrohane preparations for St. Patrick’s Day were well underway. As if a switch had been clicked somewhere, Kilcrohane began to emerge from its winter slumber. The sun was shining and the village was alive with children and holiday home owners returned to their little piece of heaven after an absence of many months.

As you know, this is my first time living in ‘rural Ireland’ and my experience of St. Patrick’s Day normally involves a few drinks and a day off work. However, in Kilcrohane there seems to be a deeply-engrained competitive streak in preparing for our national day. This competition isn’t centred around the number of pints you can drink before passing out or the number of rebel songs you can sing before your voice gives up; no, in Kilcrohane it is all about shamrock and the amount of this green foliage you can wear. Some people looked as if they were on manoeuvres with the army.

Shamrock to the fore, ladies

Indeed, as the day progressed my wife asked one of the ladies how her bush was holding up, I haven’t felt comfortable leaving the house since.

So, after a day celebrating the fact that a Welshman came to Ireland, banished the snakes, found a use for an innocuous weed, upset the druids and climbed a mountain, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Kilcrohane, you can get a free plate of bacon and cabbage from Mary in the Bay View Inn at 11pm. After that you will be ready for the rest of the night when the singing and dancing get underway. Just be sure to leave your bush, sorry, shamrock outside.

Bacon and cabbage, a meal for shamrock champions