The West Cork effect

West Cork does strange things to perfectly ordinary people. Back when we first moved to the Peninsula, I was told about the ‘West Cork air’ and the effect it has on anyone who spends enough time absorbing all its goodness.

You may think I’m joking but there is something very strange going on down here. I tell you this because it seems that this West Cork effect has taken control. Back in January, as I strolled around the fantastic farmers’ market in Skibbereen, I met the wonderful Sally McKenna. Now, Sally and her husband John produce the Bridgestone Guide, which is the guide to all things good to eat in Ireland, and they have long been my heroes. Indeed, to me they encapsulate my ideal West Cork lifestyle: writing, eating and enjoying the landscape with all that it has to offer.

Happy shoppers at Skibbereen Farmers’ Market

Anyway, Sally had set up a stall at the market in Skibbereen selling cosmetics that she makes from harvesting seaweed along the coastline and when I told her about my West Cork adventure living on the Sheep’s Head for a year she smiled. ‘Oh, you’ll never leave,’ Sally said. ‘West Cork won’t let you; one of these days you’ll have a stall at a farmers’ market. Wait and see.’

I laughed at the idea but Sally is on to something; Firstly, you get the itch to grow your own vegetables (which we do), and then you find you can’t leave the house without your camera (I never do), somehow food tastes better (yes it really does) and everything seems to slow down. For those hardcore individuals who really get stuck-in to the West Cork lifestyle, it’s all about dreadlocks, yoga and making your own clothes. I’m not quite at that stage yet but my wife has crossed the Rubicon, so to speak; well, of course, she was born here so maybe it’s not that strange. As we have learned, one of the main ways you know that West Cork has gotten under your skin is opening your own stall at a farmers’ market.

Even Leo has gone all West Cork

For many, this involves selling their excess veg or the eggs from the chickens they now keep, or homemade cakes, or the ceramics and pottery that they create themselves. However, my wife has come up with a unique product and is now selling it to some very appreciative customers.

Proof of the ‘West Cork effect’. Lamps made from driftwood created by a Frenchman living in Kilcrohane.

Ladies and gentlemen, my wife has unleashed her Carrageen Moss Pudding on the people of West Cork. Regular readers will remember my first encounter with this pudding when I described it as tasting like straw and having the consistency of rubber. Well, it seems that I will never get a job as a food critic because the general public can’t get enough of it.

Carrageen Pudding

Twice my wife and I have gone to the Skibbereen Farmers’ Market, set up the stall, and sold out of the pudding on both occasions. We also set up at the Sheep’s Head Producers’ Market in Kilcrohane and again sold out. When I say ‘we’, my input involves nothing more than helping to set up the stand and offering moral support. Caroline does all the work. She has spent hours perfecting her recipes and trying new flavours. Vanilla, orange and lemon, Irish cream liqueur and carrageen pudding with stewed rhubarb or apple – all have been received with gusto. At the markets, I play my usual role of arm candy for my very successful better half. Well, that’s what I tell myself anyway. In reality, I just stand there, run for refreshments, and then help to load up the car again. While I am damn good at getting the tea, my standing there and the loading of the car is only undertaken with the expert supervision of my wife. I know my limits.

Sheep’s Head Producers’ Market in front of Eileen’s Pub in Kilcrohane

But getting back to the so-called ‘West Cork frame of mind’, now that we have opened a market stall, I would like to inform you all that I will not, repeat not, be attempting to grow dreadlocks or take up yoga. I have, however, embraced my new life in West Cork in my own way. My many suits, for example, are, as I type, gathering dust in the wardrobes and sometimes I can go two (yes, two) days without shaving. However, I fear that my body has now built up an aversion to wearing suits. The last time that I wore one, I ended up on a trolley in Bantry General Hospital. I was waiting to speak to the Minister for Health who was opening a new unit at the hospital when suddenly I found the room spinning. When I opened my eyes, I found that I was hooked up to various machines with doctors and nurses in attendance; all this because I wore a suit after months of casual clothes. But I still got the story and, no, the Minister for Health did not call to see if I was ok.

So, it seems that if you’re not careful, the West Cork lifestyle can in fact damage your health. I may try and wear a suit again one of these days but I’ll have to have at least one doctor standing by first.

Beware of the West Cork air.


The Farm in the Bay

It’s easy to forget, when you live on the Sheep’s Head overlooking Dunmanus Bay, that there is a famous stretch of water just over the Goat’s Path.

Unlike its sometimes forgotten neighbour, Bantry Bay has seen invading armies, Irish patriots, maritime disasters and the discovery of a long-lost sunken French man-of-war. All this and it is one of the deepest natural harbours on the planet as well. But now Bantry Bay and many of the people who live and work along its 35km stretch are embroiled in a bitter fight to prevent the development of a salmon farming project just off-shore from the little village of Adrigole.

A salmon cage in Bantry Bay with Hungry Hill on the Beara Peninsula in the back ground (photo thanks to Niall Duffy)

Bantry Bay already has two other salmon farms in operation but the protestors, a gathering of local pot fishermen, recreational anglers, concerned residents and fish consumers, hospitality business owners and environmental groups say that the Bay, and indeed the livelihoods of many, will be damaged for generations to come if this salmon farm is granted a licence.

In these times of recession, the peninsulas and the surrounding region need jobs. More and more people are being forced to emigrate in an effort to find work. Surely new jobs in the area would generate much-needed income for the local businesses and retailers? The salmon farm company envisages 10 new jobs, eight during the construction phase and two permanent jobs when the farm is operational. The company will also commission a new vessel, which will be built locally and will service the up-and-running fish farm.

I get the chance to have a closer look at a salmon cage that is home to almost 40,000 salmon (photo: Niall Duffy)

On the other hand, local pot fishermen say that some of their traditional fishing grounds will be out-of-reach because of the salmon cages, while they fear that pollution created by the salmon farm (faeces and uneaten food pellets) will decimate the stocks of crab and lobster. Salmon anglers, who have seen a regeneration of the wild salmon stocks in the rivers that flow into Bantry Bay, warn that a salmon farm at the proposed location would all but destroy the numbers of wild salmon returning to spawn and force the fish already in the system to run a gauntlet of sea lice before they make it to their feeding grounds in the Atlantic. Tourism ventures that line the seashore along the Bay fear that their businesses will suffer and close because of the proposed salmon farm. Kayaking, sailing, windsurfing, swimming and even walking along the Sheep’s Head Way and the Beara Way will all be adversely affected by the placing of another salmon farm in the Bay. Meanwhile, environmentalists say that Bantry Bay, while deep, does not have the flow capacity to ‘flush’ all the contaminants they say salmon farming produces out of the Bay.

Beautiful Bantry Bay

The two sides are indeed split, as are many of the residents who live beside this wonderfully scenic part of southwest Ireland. It all boils down to this: will the creation of 10 new jobs through this venture actually end up causing more unemployment in an area struggling to hold on to the jobs it already has? Will this new salmon farm project damage the tourist industry, which is a lifeline for many local families and business owners? Will the location of the salmon farm spoil the scenic beauty and water quality of the area? Or are all these concerns to be dismissed because of the potential extra jobs that the salmon farm MAY create in the years to come? As one local man whose son had just emigrated to Canada said, ‘We have to consider the future, you can’t eat the scenery can you?’

A farmed salmon from Bantry Bay (photo: Niall Duffy)

So what do you think? Should the people of Bantry Bay put the economic future of the area first or should its environmental future take priority? Or are the two inseparable? Can both fish farming and tourism exist side-by-side?

Do any of these issues cross your mind when you eat farmed salmon?

Lobster killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?

Can you feed nine people with one lobster?

I was faced with this first-world problem recently and I don’t mind telling you that after a lot of work and a fair bit of doubt the answer is yes, yes you can.

Lobster for nine

But more about that later.

And I have a rather momentous announcement to make, but you will have to wait for that too.

As I write this latest update from the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, I am sitting here looking out on the not-so-calm waters of Dunmanus Bay, the rain is pouring down, the wind is howling and to quote one local fisherman ‘the Bay is angry today’.

I tell you this because over the last few weeks we have had very un-January-like weather with sunny days and temperatures reminiscent of springtime. In fact, we have daffodils flowering in many fields. (Kilcrohane used to be famous for its early daffodils but that’s another story).

Just before Christmas, I decided that I would love to cook lobster as a treat for the festive season and with some of the best shellfish available anywhere just a few steps from my door I ordered one medium-sized fresh Dunmanus Bay Homarus gammarus or European lobster.

I collected the crustacean along with five litres of seawater from the Bay to cook it in and returned home to a house full of visitors who had arrived to ring in the New Year. (We seem to be getting a lot of visitors and friends calling since we moved to West Cork. I didn’t know we were so popular).

Prepared with seawater from Dunmanus Bay

Before you think that I am a terrible host and should have ordered more lobsters, let me explain; I didn’t know we were going to have nine people staying when I ordered my lobster and I actually got the very last one that our ‘shellfish guy’ had. And there is something of a recession going on, you know, even in West Cork.

Help in the kitchen preparing the lobster

Following a quick scan of the cookery bookshelf, I decided on lobster salad (thank you Rick Stein) and after a quick boil (alive), I removed the meat from the body and the claws and then set it aside. Next, I mixed spring onion, avocado, red pepper, olive oil and lemon juice together in a bowl and added the lobster when it had cooled down. After serving it all up on a bed of lettuce, I found that I had fed nine people with just one lobster. Very proud of myself, I sat back and awaited the oohs and aahs of amazement from all those gathered around the table.

Wonderful lobster salad

I’m still waiting.

The reaction to the miracle of the ‘feeding of the nine’ ranged from ‘this is interesting’ to ‘I’m not quite sure about this lobster’ and ‘Yeah, it was alright’ to my favourite ‘is it supposed to be tough?’

Not put off by the lack of enthusiasm from my guests, I waited until they had left, went out for a drive and arrived back with crabs. (Not an infestation, Brown Crabs – shellfish that is) Again, these lads were straight out of the Bay and very much alive.

Now, my confidence in cooking and dealing with these live beauties has been spurred on by that wonderful lobster salad (yes, wonderful) I had prepared for the now departed guests.

The lobster, however, when it was still very much alive was, unlike the crabs, a lot more resigned to its faith and went meekly to the pot. The crabs fought every inch of the way.

One of the two mad crabs

When I arrived to collect my two crustaceans, I could see that they were ready for a fight. As I approached their holding pot, I noticed through the bars that the inmates were restless. When the pot was opened, two sets of massive claws reached skywards snapping wildly in all directions. ‘At least the lobster had its claws secured with rubber bands; these lads look like they could do some serious damage if they got a hold of you,’ I thought as the angry shellfish were expertly removed from their prison and placed into a waiting box with some seaweed.

I put the box in the trunk of the car and headed for Harro and Gisi’s house as I had decided to give one crab to them as a thank you for all their help with the pheasants.

When I arrived at the house, I opened the trunk to find one of the crabs had climbed out of the box and was waiting in ambush. After a lot of coaxing, cursing and finally covering the mad crab with my coat, I managed to get it back into the box only to find its mate about to leap from the back of the car.

When I eventually got the crabs inside the house, Gisi lifted one out of the box and put it in a bowl so expertly and without any hesitation that I decided not to tell her how I had been standing outside her home for the last ten minutes fighting with the crabs and trying to get them back in the box without losing a finger or any other appendage.

Returning to Kilcrohane and after another struggle to get it in the pot I cooked the crab, removed the meat and now I need your help. What would you do with this lovely, flaky, sweet meat? I was thinking about a crab quiche but as one of my former editors used to say: ‘real men don’t eat quiche’.

Look at all that meat

Then, just when I thought I had gotten over my shellfish moment there was a knock on the door.

I opened it to find the ‘man with the gun’ without his gun but with a big smile on his face. ‘Wait until you see what I have for you, and get your camera ready’, he said as I hoped and prayed that it wasn’t another pheasant or duck or woodcock or brace of snipe or anything covered in feathers that needed to be gutted.

While I stood there (very pale and frightened) with my camera, he produced a bucket. ‘Have a look’, he said, still smiling as a strange scraping sound emanated from inside the big black plastic pail . ‘Oh, God, it’s not enough that I will have to clean out whatever’s in the bucket, now he wants me to kill it as well’, I thought as I peered over the lip of the container.

Staring back at me, with one giant claw open and pointed directly at my nose, was the biggest lobster I have ever seen. I was relieved, amazed and immediately hungry all at the same time. Now the only question was, did I have a pot big enough to hold this monster?

The lobster and his one massive claw

I finally found a casserole pot just big enough to take ‘Long-John Lobster’ (as I had decided to call him because of his single monster claw).

Long-John lobster ready to be thermidored

As Long John boiled away on the stove top, I learned another valuable lesson. Never, and I mean never, mention a longing for a certain food on the Peninsula. Let me give you an example; as we, ‘the man with the gun’ and I, watched the lobster bubble away in the pot, I casually mentioned that I would love some scallops.

Later that day, as I prepared Long John for a lobster thermidor dinner, there was another knock on the door.

Lobster thermidor

While I have no doubt that you know what’s coming next, let me tell you that I have never seen scallops so big or so fresh. There stood ‘the man with the gun’ armed with another bucket, this time containing 12 huge scallops.

Be careful what you wish for - scallops fresh from the Bay

In our freezer, at this very moment, we have crabmeat, a pheasant and 12 scallops. Sounds like a dinner party in the making, if you ask me; all local food from the Sheep’s Head. Now all I need is some Durrus cheese and local honey and I can send out the invitations.

Oh, as for the momentous news, you will all be delighted to know that I have caught my first fish of 2012. I hope there will be many more.

First fish of 2012 - a nice pollock off the rocks in Dunmanus Bay