World Sherry Day. West Cork style

Would you like a glass of sherry?

I know what you’re thinking, drawing rooms, cardigans, slippers, perhaps a pipe stand, and a decanter (if you’re posh) filled with a brownish, sticky, sweet liquid and a small glass to sip from.

Or maybe you’re reminded of your maiden aunt with the bottle of sherry warming nicely, permanently on display, on the mantle over the fire? Or perhaps you have memories of those very elegant (er, not really) country weddings of your youth. Remember the invitation: ‘John and Mary request the pleasure of your company as they celebrate the holy sacrament of marriage at the Church of the Immaculate Contraception, Ballymackilthomas, followed by a Sherry Reception and Wedding Breakfast at the Ballymackilthomas Court Hotel.’

And what was a Sherry Reception exactly? The same brownish, sticky, sweet liquid and a small glass to sip from while your country cousins began to remove their ties and jackets, roll up their sleeves, down a few pints of stout and prepare for the main event – the ‘dinner’.

I remember seeing rows of sherry glasses, sitting filled and abandoned on a long table as all but one or two of the wedding guests made a beeline for the bar and the ‘proper drinks’ while we awaited the arrival of the bride and groom.

So, if your thoughts turn to maiden aunts, rural weddings or a brownish, sticky, sweet liquid and a small glass to sip from, then I am here today to tell you that Sherry, Real Sherry, is a revelation. I am also here to tell you that I am a sherry lover and I have come to this astounding conclusion not on the road to Cádiz but on the road to Ballylickey in West Cork.

First let me set the scene. You will be aware, I am certain, that West Cork has a reputation both at home and abroad, for good locally produced food. Cheese, meat, seafood, you name it, there is someone in West Cork using said local produce and making delicious food. While these producers are spread from the rugged coastline to the beautiful mountains, there is an oasis where you can go and not only enjoy a plate full of local cheeses, or fill your basket with locally reared meats, smoked salmon, or freshly baked breads and cakes, but you can also have a glass (or two) of specially selected wines from some of the best French, Spanish or Italian vineyards.

Manning's Emporium Home of fine food

Manning’s Emporium the home of fine food in West Cork

You can find all this on the shores of Bantry Bay at the renowned Manning’s Emporium in Ballylickey.

And it was at Manning’s that we recently celebrated World Sherry Day 2013.

This worldwide event is held to celebrate fine sherry and good food and it was only right and proper that Andrew, Laura, Val and the team at Manning’s represent West Cork on World Sherry Day or ‘WSD’ as we hip, cool, sherry aficionados say.

Getting ready for the hungry sherry tasters at WSD

Getting ready for the hungry sherry tasters at WSD

Of course, there is no point in going to an event such as WSD and sitting on the sidelines. I decided to immerse myself (not literally, well, almost) in the sherry on offer. Somebody had to, in the interest of accurate reporting you understand.

I began with a sherry that was served ice-cold, was bone dry and full of flavour. This was an immediate shock to my system as I had prepared myself for a warm, sweet liquid. Another shock was that this particular sherry has an Irish connection.

There seems to be two stories as to how a Waterford man ended up in Spain making sherry in the latter part of the 18th century.

The first one goes something like this. William Garvey left Waterford in 1780 on his way to Rome. As his ship sailed into the Mediterranean, a sudden storm off the coast of Spain led to Mr. Garvey’s trip to Rome being interrupted when the ship sank and the survivors found themselves ship wrecked not far from Cádiz. Not one to miss an opportunity, Mr. Garvey took one look at the vineyards in the area, the beautiful Spanish ladies, and the fact that half the country wasn’t under water for most of the year and decided, ‘To hell with Rome, I’m staying here’.

And that’s exactly what he did. He married one of the beautiful Spanish ladies and started shipping sherry to London under his own label ‘Fino San Patricio’ or St. Patrick Sherry. Now, over 200 years later, Bodega de San Patricio exports not only really good sherry but brandy as well.

Then there’s the other story. This one tells of William Garvey leaving Waterford looking for sheep and finding sherry. I think I prefer the first one.

Anyway, with the Fino San Patricio, we nibbled on locally produced Gubbeen Chorizo and some olives.

Next, it was time to sample a Manzanilla. Again, this sherry was served ice-cold and while dry like the Garvey this sherry has a slight saline taste. The location of the vineyards and bodegas, along the coast to the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda gives the sherry a real taste of the sea. We sipped this Manzanilla with some fantastic smoked salmon from Ummera Smokehouse just down the road in Timoleague. The smoky, oily salmon was perfect with the sherry.

Manzanilla with some Ummera smoked salmon

Manzanilla with some Ummera smoked salmon

Now it was on to the next sherry and we were beginning to get a little closer, in looks at least, to the sherry of my childhood. However, this is where the comparison stopped.

Served ‘à la’ red wine, the Amontillado is to taste not unlike a fruity, perhaps dry, cabernet. This sherry is a lovely, nut-brown colour and after the San Patricio is my favourite to match with food. With the Amontillado, which was a match made in heaven, we sampled some spicy black pudding |(that’s blood pudding for all the vegetarians out there) from the wonderful Ballyvourney pudding makers.

Black pudding and an Amontillado

Black pudding and an Amontillado

At this point I know what you’re all thinking. This is where he took a break, relaxed, had some water, maybe a little nap?

However, I’m a professional and when I set out to report on a story or an event I never stop until the job is done.DSC_2737

So, it was on to the next sherry.  While things had become a little blurry at this point, the next sherry was a complete eye-opener, an Oloroso. Even darker than the Amontillado, this sherry was aged much longer in oak casks. It was amazing. Dark, rich, nutty, and I could be wrong but I got a distinct taste of butterscotch. This went perfectly with a selection of Gubbeen and Durrus cheeses.

Sherry and meat, what more could you want. Cheese and Bread!

Sherry and meat, what more could you want? Cheese and Bread!

There was one more sherry left to try. And this one came in a bottle with a lock and key attached. As dark as stout and with a consistency not unlike watery honey, this Pedro Ximenez is not for those who are without a sweet tooth. This sherry came with its very own handmade sherry truffle from master chocolatier Benoit Lorge and, in honour of WSD, an up-and-coming food producer (an incredibly good looking one as well) Caroline Crowley, crafted a Pedro Ximenez-infused carrageen moss pudding, using milk and seaweed.

Pedro Ximenez under lock and key

Pedro Ximenez under lock and key

After the final sherry, as far as I remember, I called it a day.

WSD was a wonderful event and I would recommend exploring the world of sherry and, for those planning a visit to West Cork, head for Manning’s before you go anywhere else. A trip here will set you up nicely for the rest of your West Cork adventure.

Looking forward to World Sherry Day 2014.

Looking forward to World Sherry Day 2014.

Now does anyone know when World Whiskey Day is?

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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…

A farewell to Kilcrohane.

Nothing lasts forever. All good things come to an end. One door closes and another one opens. The glass is half full not half empty and so on.

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

The Summer of 2012 and the beginning of a perfect day in Kilcrohane.

These are the comforting words I have been telling myself over the last few weeks as we prepare to leave Kilcrohane for our new home just down the road, at the gateway to the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, in the village of Durrus.

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

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

Our year on the Peninsula has past so quickly that as I sit here looking out the window at Dunmanus Bay glistening in the February sunshine, it feels like we have just arrived and unpacked.

I will miss Kilcrohane. Part of me doesn’t want to leave, this is a very special place and I have been very lucky to be able to live, even if only for a short time, in such a wonderful community.

Those of you who have been reading my scribblings over the last year will know all about the beauty of this very special part of West Cork. We have enjoyed adventures both on land and at sea, we’ve met artists, musicians, chefs, farmers, fishermen, sailors and of course the locals who make this place so inviting. We’ve had friends from the city who stayed for weekends and went home jealous (though they’d never admit it) and determined to come back.

Farranamanagh Lake from the little stone jetty

Farranamanagh Lake from the little stone jetty

There were days when the rain just didn’t stop, and the south-westerly gales had us wondering if the house would still have a roof by the end of it all, but then there were the days, just a few, when we were in the right place at the right time. When the sun turned the Peninsula into a lush green finger of land jutting out into the blue and white of the Atlantic Ocean. The days when you could sit on a rock and watch the gannets diving into Dunmanus Bay, or the seals basking on the rocks, or the otters fishing for sea urchins. Those few days when all seemed right with the world, when walking along the Funeral Path or the Fisherman’s Walk you knew that it didn’t get much better than this.

Sea Urchins, spiney but delicious?

Sea urchins, spiney but delicious?

First fish of 2012 a nice pollack off the rocks in Dunmanus bay

First fish of 2012, a nice pollack off the rocks in Dunmanus Bay

I particularly loved meeting the people who arrived during the summer for their annual vacation. Standing on Kilcrohane pier watching the sun set over the Peninsula, their children tired and happy after a day spent swimming, fishing from crabs or messing about in boats, standing there we would nod a knowing hello before the usual conversation would begin.

‘Isn’t it great here,’ the tourist would say.

‘Indeed it is,’ I would answer while we both looked out over the blue water towards the Mizen Peninsula.

‘You can’t beat West Cork, it’s a long journey from Dublin but it’s worth it just for this view alone,’ the tourist would continue.

‘Yes, it is lovely,’ I’d say smiling as I prepared myself for the next inevitable question.

‘Where are you from yourself, did you have far to travel?’

‘No,’ I’d answer.

‘Just a few fields away, I live here,’ I’d say, as I picked up my fishing rod and headed back home with one or two fresh pollock for dinner.

Heading for home at the end of the summer 2012

Heading for home at the end of summer 2012

This, I suppose, was cruel but I do enjoy saying I live in such a beautiful place.

Let me give you a quick rundown of the highlights of our year living dangerously in West Cork.

I stopped wearing suits, I grew a beard, I passed out while waiting to interview the Minister for Health, I sailed a million euro yacht in Dunmanus Bay.

Life on the ocean wave. Notice the beard? Sadly no longer in place.

Life on the ocean wave. Notice the beard? Sadly no longer in place.

I plucked and ate pheasant, dined on lobster and scallop freshly caught from the same bay, visited a fish farm in Bantry Bay, reported on a pirate invasion and compered a food festival.

Far from the Caribbean these are the pirates of Bantry Bay.

Far from the Caribbean, these are the pirates of Bantry Bay.

Long John and his one massive claw finally in the pot

Long John and his one massive claw finally in the pot

Scallops fresh from the bay.

Scallops fresh from the bay.

My first brace of Pheasant

My first brace of pheasant

My wife started her own food business and we built our first home together, I put my back out and needed a pain relief injection while painting a skirting board. All in all, I think you’ll agree, it’s been a very productive year in West Cork.

Carrageen Moss pudding

Carrageen moss pudding

Now we are about to begin another chapter in our adventure, if I can be allowed to quote a certain political party’s slogan, ‘A lot done, more to do’. I will continue to eat the Sheep’s Head and all it has to offer but I am determined to cast my net out beyond the Peninsula and see what’s going on in Skibbereen, Schull, Ballydehob and Clonakilty. The Beara and the Mizen peninsulas are full of places to explore and good things to eat so I hope you will continue to follow Eating the Sheep’s Head as the next story unfolds.

As we begin to pack up and get ready for the journey to Durrus, I want to thank everybody in Kilcrohane for all their kindness and making us feel so welcome. Even though they knew that a journalist was living in their midst, they never once threatened to run me out of the village. Believe me, this was a change from my last posting.

Thanks to Eileen and Mary for keeping the drinks flowing, to Elaine and Noel for the wonderful house, to Frank and Marie for providing us with not only our daily newspaper and pint of milk but also for the wonderful food and wine at the Grainstore. Thanks to Finbarr for his superb rendition of ‘Galway Girl’ played on the spoons, and to the human jukebox Neil Lynch for a New Year’s Eve to remember. Thanks also to the ‘man with the gun’ for keeping us supplied with game and seafood and of course thanks to everybody who we met and who made us feel at home.

Enjoying the art at the Grain Store in Kilcrohane

Enjoying the art at the Grain Store in Kilcrohane

Finbarr Spillane the best spoons player in the world. (Well, Kilcrohane anyway)

Finbarr Spillane, the best spoons player in the world. (Well, Kilcrohane anyway)

The Kilcrohane Farmers' Market

The Kilcrohane Farmers’ Market

Close encounters of the woolly kindWell, that’s it, next stop Durrus.

Pirates, pineapples and parties

As you know I live on a peninsula: a thin sliver of land jutting out into the Atlantic ocean with Dunmanus Bay on one side and the world-famous Bantry Bay on the other.

While I am, as I type, looking out at the blue-green waters of Dunmanus Bay, behind me and over the spine of the peninsula, is the much wider and much, much deeper Bantry Bay.

Bantry Bay, looking west towards the Atlantic Ocean

It was here that I witnessed what can only be described as a week-long festival of every feature that makes Ireland such a great place to live.

But first a bit of history for all those who are not aware of Bantry Bay’s incredible place in the nation’s story.

On a cold and stormy December night in 1796, 14,000 veteran French troops huddled in the damp, dark cargo holds of 43 naval vessels. Many were sick; all of them were cold and wet after enduring a storm-filled crossing from their bases on the west coast of France. The French ships suddenly appeared out of the darkness and made their way to their target and landing point, the town of Bantry at the end of the 22-mile long bay.

Bantry Bay looking east towards the town of Bantry and the proposed land site for the French army

The French armada had successfully evaded the Royal Navy, sailed silently up Bantry Bay and were now dropping anchor over-looking the town and its sleeping inhabitants.

Ireland’s back door, so to speak, was wide open. This was better than anyone had expected. The closest English garrison that could have offered some opposition was over 50 miles away in Cork city. While the French troops were eager to get ashore and begin the liberation of Ireland, there was a problem.

The French fleet had broken up into smaller groups out in the Atlantic to avoid the Royal Navy and, while 43 ships had now rejoined in Bantry Bay, a few were missing. One of these missing vessels was the flagship Fraternité, and a very important passenger, the general commanding the French expedition, General Hoche.

With no one to take command, no one to give the order to land and the weather getting worse by the hour, the French army waited, like sitting ducks for all to see. It must have been some sight when the sun came up and there, anchored in the bay, was this easily reached giant target. When General Hoche and the Fraternité finally arrived, he took one look at the conditions (the worsening weather and the lack of any movement by his army) and called the whole invasion off. The French hauled up their anchors and began to make their way back up the bay towards the Atlantic and home to France. Never would Ireland and the English be so unprepared for an invading army again.

As the French fleet broke out into the Atlantic, a long boat known as a ‘Captains Gig’ was dislodged from one of the ships. This boat washed up on Bere Island, a small spec of land at the mouth of Bantry Bay.

The Bantry Bay Longboat, as it quickly became known, was taken to Bantry House where it stayed for over 150 years until it was moved, in the 1940s, to the National Museum in Dublin. This long boat is the oldest surviving vessel in the French navy and has gone on to inspire a festival of seamanship, which involves young people from across the globe. This summer, the Atlantic Challenge, as the festival is called, took place in Bantry Bay.

More than 300 participants representing teams from Indonesia, Canada, Russia, the USA and elsewhere spent a week in Bantry where they competed in various sea trials and generally had a whale of a time.

The parade of nations at the opening of the Bantry Atlantic Challenge 2012

Bantry became a party town for a week; we had the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, on hand to officially launch the 2012 Atlantic Challenge and there was plenty to do both on and off the water.

Some of the competitors meeting the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins

Food, music, sailing, oh and an invasion by hundreds of pirates, all culminated in a spectacular fireworks display as Bantry said goodbye to the visitors at the end of the week.

The Irish team arrives at the launch of the Bantry Atlantic Challenge 2012

And before I continue, when I say that there were hundreds of pirates in Bantry, you must remember that the people of West Cork are no strangers to pirates. In fact the town of Baltimore (the original Baltimore in County Cork) is only too aware of what a menace ‘real’ pirates can be.

Far from the Caribbean sea, these are the pirates of Bantry Bay

More history. Back in 1631, on another dark and stormy night (we get a lot of those around here), the entire coastal town of Baltimore was sacked by pirates who took all the men, women and children to Africa where they were sold into slavery. Of the 108 people captured only three made it back to Ireland alive.

Back in Bantry, during the summer of 2012, the town was overrun with eye patches, wooden legs, muskets and even parrots, all enjoying a day-long party in the town square. However, it was far from treasure maps and plundering the high seas these lads and lasses were reared as most headed for the candyfloss and the bouncy castles.

No self respecting pirate goes anywhere with his or her parrot

There were also prizes for the best-dressed pirates. Fears that someone would be forced to walk the plank when it turned out that the prizes were pineapples and not treasure chests were short-lived but the presentation of the prickly fruits did cause one or two muskets to be drawn.

This family of pirates are happy with their pineapple prize

As the festival came to a close, it reminded me that while I spend most of my time enjoying all that Dunmanus Bay has to offer, you can very easily miss all the other beautiful and interesting communities and locations outside of my world on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula.

It’s time to get out and see more of West Cork I think.

 

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

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!!!!