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.

 

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

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